Liberals are acting all righteous and offended that a member of the Republican opposition, Rep. "Joe" Wilson of South Carolina, would deign to besmirch the "dignity of the presidency" by calling out "Liar!" in the middle of President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening.
One of the big problems with American democracy is that the presidency has over the years been elevated to the level of a monarchy, with all the imperial trappings and pomposity formerly associated with royalty. Presidents surely should get no more respect than a prime minister, and look at the hoots and catcalls PMs have to endure when they address Parliament in the UK. That's a good thing.
Anyhow, it would have been far better if, instead of clapping wildly, liberal Democrats in Congress had hooted down some of the other whoppers and stretchers told by the president in his health care address.
2. Obama said that "nothing else even comes close" to health care expenditures in terms of causing the federal deficit. In fact, something does---the military budget--but that topic is off limits for both Republicans and Democrats. Why couldn't Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold have yelled out, "What about military spending!"
3. Perhaps one of the biggest lies of the night was the president's claim that while there are "arguments to be made" for single-payer systems like Canada's, switching to single-payer in the US would require building "an entirely new system from scratch." The truth: Medicare is already a successful single-payer system and in fact, it is bigger and older than Canada's own nation-wide system. Expanding it to cover every American would not be starting from scratch at all. It would be expanding something already proven. Where were the shouts of "What about Medicare!" from Rep. John Conyers (and his dozens of cosigners), whose bill, HR 676, to expand Medicare to all has been barred from getting even a hearing by the House leadership with encouragement from the White House?
4. The president insisted that insurance executives don't "cherry-pick" profitable customers and push out those who are sickest, because they are "bad people." He said they are just doing it because it's profitable. It would have been nice if at least someone in the assembled throng of lobbiest-enthralled House and Senate members had shouted out something like "Just like bank robbers and drug dealers!" because the truth is that health insurance executives are bad people. They know that they are killing people every day through their ruthless policies, and they go right ahead and do it. Pursuit of profit does not, or at least should not, constitute a license to kill. (Just imagine a hit man, at his sentencing hearing, telling the judge, "I'm not a bad person, Your Honor. I just knock people off because it's profitable.")
5. The president said he was "not trying to put the insurance industry out of business," and added, "They provide a legitimate service." This line, not surprisingly, given the amount of money that industry has lavished on members of Congress and on the president himself, got what was probably the loudest bi-partisan applause of the night. But it surely led to a lot of groans and of coffee, tea or beer being spewed out involuntarily across carpets and upholstery in homes across America. Legitimate service? Insurance firms are nothing but vampires, or better, leeches on the health care system. They provide no service. Ask doctors, who have to fight to get permission to treat patients, and then fight to get reimbursed. Ask patients, who spend hours on the phone arguing with faceless drones, some probably in Bangalor or Manila, who are denying them coverage for needed medicines or procedures that are supposed to be covered. Listen to the testimony of whistle-blowers who have confirmed that those drones actually get paid bonuses based upon the number of claims they manage to deny. How satisfying it would have been if someone in Congress had yelled out, "Legitimate service my ass!"
6. Turning to the pathetically circumscribed and downsized "public option" in his "reform" plan, Obama declared that "a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option." Well that may be true, but it's not the whole truth. It would have been a great moment for Kucinich or Conyers or some other progressive member of Congress to shout out: "A majority also favors a single-payer plan!"
7. And where the defenders of women's rights, when Obama vowed that under his plan, "no federal funds would be used to fund abortions?" Couldn't someone have shouted out, "Women have rights too!" Is the president really saying that if a woman is raped, or a child gets pregnant through incest, or if a woman's life is at risk because of a pregnancy, that his plan will not pay for her to obtain an abortion? Cries of "For shame!" should have been ringing through the hall!
Whack-job or not, Rep. Wilson did the cause of democracy and honest discourse a favor when, faced with a statement he felt was clearly false, he found he couldn't repress the urge to call the president a "liar." In doing so, he put a much-needed ding in the wholly inappropriate and dangerous imperial aura of "respect" that has grown like lichens around the office of President. No more than anyone else in this nation, a president should have to earn the respect not just of the members of Congress, but of the broader public. He or she is another citizen, no more and no less, and when a president, like President Obama in this instance, dissembles, exaggerates or attempts to deceive or mislead, it is healthy for democracy if he is called out on it immediately and publicly.
We need more honesty in Washington, not more civility.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist. His latest book is "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). His work is available at click here