West Columbia, S.C. — Rep. Joe Wilson is known as a mild-mannered congressman fond of making short speeches. His shortest got the most attention.
“You lie!” Wilson blurted out during President Barack Obama’s health care address to a joint session Wednesday night, an outburst that made some supporters shudder even as others believed it could give Wilson a political boost in his conservative hometown.
“He’s the only one who has guts in that whole place. He’ll get re-elected in a landslide,” said John Roper, an insurance agent, as he sat among patrons at a diner near Columbia.
Still, Southern sensibilities reign in the district the 62-year-old has represented for the past eight years. Added Roper, “He probably shouldn’t have said it in that context.”
Wilson apologized to the White House soon after the speech and again Thursday, but did not back away from the issue that prompted his outburst. “People who have come to our country and violated laws, we should not be providing full health care services,” he said.
The uproar may not be over, despite Obama having accepted Wilson’s apology. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said he favors a resolution of public disapproval if Wilson doesn’t apologize to the House by Tuesday.
Clyburn, whose district adjoins Wilson’s, said he was not surprised by the outburst: “I think that’s indicative of the combativeness he displays all the time when it comes to politics.”
Wilson told WIS-TV “by calling the president right away following the speech, I feel that covers the issue the apology called for, and the response was accepted, and I’m now grateful we can get on to the issue itself.”
Wilson’s shout came after Obama said extending health care to all Americans who seek it would not mean insuring illegal immigrants.
The House version of the health care bill explicitly prohibits spending any federal money to help illegal immigrants get health care. Illegal immigrants could buy private health insurance, as many do now, but wouldn’t get tax subsidies to help them. Still, Republicans say there aren’t sufficient citizenship verification requirements to ensure illegal immigrants are excluded.
Wilson, who served as a military attorney, retired as a colonel in the South Carolina National Guard in 2003 after 31 years. His four sons also have served in the military, something mentioned repeatedly at Wilson’s public appearances in this military-friendly state. For some, that background makes the outburst against the nation’s commander in chief even more striking.
“I thought it was disgraceful,” said the Rev. Kevin Roberts, who said he doesn’t support Wilson. “I don’t begrudge him his feeling. But I think there’s a way to communicate that and a way not to, and I think it’s shameful. I expect more decorum and respect for the office.”
But Wilson’s shout is giving a financial boost to his Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, who is challenging the incumbent in 2010. In the first 24 hours after Wilson’s outburst, Miller’s campaign coffers swelled by $500,000, according to Jessica Santillo of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The contribution, she said, came in from 14,000 individual contributions. It’s not clear whether the people who made the donations live in South Carolina.