Heckling the President
In his Daily Beast debut, Alex Massie rises in defense of Joe Wilson’s outburst. No, not so much whether Obama was lying in this particular instance but rather the very notion that it’s “inappropriate” to heckle the president. The whole piece is worth a read but here’s a taste:
Trivial though it may seem, this brouhaha highlights a great flaw in the American system: You elect a monarch. In olden days and on the old continent, criticizing the monarch might limit your life chances. So too, alas, in the American capital today, as the arbiters of acceptable Washington indecency—that is, the Davids Broder and Gergen—decry your shortage of civility and surfeit of vulgarity.
The convention that Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the President in His Presence elides the great difference known to every Briton—that between insulting the head of state and insulting the mere head of the executive branch of government.
Insulting Queen Elizabeth is one thing; insulting Gordon Brown is practically an obligation. Disrespecting the former is an act of treason; disrespecting the latter and his office, a necessity: Every Wednesday, Brown must endure Prime Minister’s Questions, during which his enemies in Parliament grill him. Prime Minister’s Questions may not be the be all and end all, but it affords an opportunity for “telling truth to power” that does not exist in the regal American system.
America’s problem is that it has combined the head of state and the head of the executive branch into a single office, and it can no longer distinguish between the two roles. Obama’s health-care address was not given in his role as head of state. It was, rather, a political speech made by—pinch yourselves—a mere politician seeking to advance his own political agenda.
He makes a very good point here, extending the argument Alex Knapp makes in Bring Heckling to the Colonies! And, as a matter of principle, I agree. Of course Wilson has a right to call Barack Obama a liar. But there’s a time, place, and manner for everything and an address to a joint session of Congress is not the appropriate venue.
The more I think about it, though, the idea of the president calling Congress together to give them their marching orders on health care is inappropriate. I’m not calling out Obama here; he’s merely following recent precedent. But, aside from the annual State of the Union address (which, frankly, I’d be happy to see return to its written message to Congress format) and genuine national emergencies such as the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, the very format is a bad idea. It’s yet another way that we reinforce the mistaken notion that the president is “the boss” and that Congress has an obligation to carry out his agenda.
Presidents have the bully pulpit by the nature of their office and can easily get their message to the people whenever they want. But let’s do away with him calling the elected representatives of the people together and lambasting them for not doing what he wants.