Where's The Line Between Dissent And Disrespect?

Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst in the middle of President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday triggered two national conversations: one about health care, the other, about respect for the presidency. Presidential historians discuss this moment in the long history of passionate dissent in Washington.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson's shout in the middle of President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress last Wednesday night triggered two conversations, one about health care, the other about respect for the presidency. To many conservatives, Joe Wilson became a hero who spoke truth to power. His phrase, you lie, is now celebrated on right-wing radio and on bumper stickers. To many liberals, Wilson crossed the line from dissent to disrespect, and more than a few suspect that the president's race plays a part here.

So keeping in mind the vitriol directed at George W. Bush and other presidents, where do you draw the line between dissent and disrespect? What's appropriate criticism? What goes too far?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, personal responsibility for health is on the Opinion Page this week. Mary Schmich joins us to argue that too many of us can't afford to join the gym, buy organic and keep up on the latest health trends. But first, is this any way to treat a president? And part of the discussion is the setting for this particular incident. Fred Beuttler joins us here in Studio 3A. He's deputy historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, and nice to have you with us.

Mr. FRED BEUTTLER (Deputy Historian, U.S. House of Representatives): Thank you.

CONAN: And give us some context. Has a member of the House ever yelled at the president during a speech to a joint session?

Mr. BEUTTLER: Well, one of the things, after last Wednesday, we had a chance to do some research and kind of consider, and there have been kind of minor expressions, grumblings. What I'd like to say is kind of on a continuum. As every watcher of the State of the Union has, they take a look to see how many times the president's party rises in standing ovation and how many times the opposing party sits on their hands.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. BEUTTLER: And then you see the body language, rolling your eyes, that kind of thing. It started really in about - during the Clinton administration. You started to hear some murmurings, sort of shout-outs but usually by 20, 30 members - kind of quiet.

CONAN: Grumbling.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Grumblings, that kind of thing, a little more jeering occasionally. Then, a few times during the presidency of George Bush, there were some boos and audible shouts of no, no, but usually it was 20, 30 members kind of in expressions of dissent.

CONAN: As it - well, even before Congressman Wilson shouted out, you heard members, Republicans, all grumbling but no individual voice emerging.

Mr. BEUTTLER: This is the first time it has been a single individual, identifiable, saying something in dissent.

CONAN: And then there is the form of words. You lie. This has consequences in parliamentary decorum.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Well, it goes all the way back even to the English parliament, the British parliament, that you're not supposed to sort of use - the expression is indulge in personality, and that includes calling a liar or a lie, but other terms, as well, are forbidden based on the rules of decorum.

CONAN: And there is, however, quite a distinction between our House of Representatives, the United States Senate, how they treat the executive leader of government and how that person is treated - the prime minister, in England. We have a clip of tape from the House of Commons. This is an annual - excuse me, a weekly…

Mr. BEUTTLER: A weekly, yes.

CONAN: …event, now bi-weekly sometimes, called Prime Minister's Question Time. Here we have the opposition leader, David Cameron, mocking Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The Right Honourable DAVID CAMERON (Conservative, Witney): He's the first prime minister in history to flunk an election because he thought he was going to win it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

The Right Honourable CAMERON: Does he remember writing this, it's in his bestselling book about courage: As far back as I can remember, I've been fascinated by men and women of courage, stories of people who took brave decisions in the service of great causes, especially when more comfortable and far less dangerous alternatives were open to them. Does he realize what a phony he now looks?

CONAN: And phony, I guess, is okay, but if he'd said you're a liar, sir, well, that would have caused him to face reprobation.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Something in the House of Commons, yes. One of the things that's different is remember, the prime minister is part of the House of Commons, whereas the president is not. The president is an invited guest, a part of another branch of government. And going all the way back 100 years ago, there was an expression that the House - there's actually a committee report that the House actually admonishes its members not to disparage members of the other body, of the president.

CONAN: Well, when does the line of dissent cross into disrespect? What goes too far when criticizing a president, any president? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Chris(ph), and Chris is calling from St. Louis.

CHRIS (Caller): Oh, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, Chris.

CHRIS: Two things. One, I think it's kind of specious to even compare us to the House of Commons or the English system. Second, it becomes over the line when you do it on national television as the president is addressing a joint session of Congress. So I'd say somewhere at the door of the House probably is where he crossed the line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The door at the House of Representative, which of course, the larger chamber is where both chambers and the Supreme Court and everybody else gathers for a joint session of Congress.

CHRIS: That's right.

CONAN: All right. Is that the point, that this was in Congress, Fred Beuttler?

Mr. BEUTTLER: Well, one of things that - Congress, the actual setting, is an issue and a very big issue here. What's interesting is the reaction and the understanding and the comparison with the House of Commons. You notice last year in the campaign, one of the candidates actually suggested that that may be a good idea, the kind of question time bringing in, but because we are dealing with separation of powers as a fundamental principle in the American Constitution, the president is separate. He's not like the prime minister, and so I don't think we'll get to that kind of raucousness of the House of Commons.

CONAN: And indeed, you hear American journalists being challenged: Why don't you challenge the president of the United States the way British journalists feel free to challenge the prime minister of Great Britain, and again, it's not quite the same. Yes, go ahead, Chris.

CHRIS: The other thing is that this was an address. This was a speech. This was not debate.

CONAN: So this was not a debate. He was not - and certainly, he's also not an equal to the president of the United States, at least not in our constitutional system. Chris, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

CHRIS: You're welcome.

CONAN: And let's bring another voice here, Robert Dallek, one of the - we'll note that this is certainly not the first president to face withering criticism from political opponents - Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, to name just a few, all on the receiving end of intense personal attacks, though not openly challenged during a joint session of Congress.

Robert Dallek joins us to talk about respect for the nation's highest office throughout history, why it's important, and how other countries express respect or disapproval towards the head of government or the head of state. And Professor Dallek, it's always good to have you on the program.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Historian): Nice to be with you.

CONAN: And that's an important distinction. Again, the prime minister in Britain is the head of government. The president of the United States is the head of state.

Mr. DALLEK: Yes, it is an important distinction because you would never see in England an outburst of the sort against the king or the queen that we saw by Joe Wilson against President Obama, and what made it all out of bounds during the president's speech was the fact that he is also not just our president but, in a sense, our king. He holds the symbols of power in this country, as well as the administrative authority. And so it's a kind of mixed system that we have and makes it different in that sense from the English system. And that's partly the reason why, though your other guest quite accurately points out that the presidency is a separate branch of government. The president is not a member of the House of Representatives, as the prime minister is a member of parliament. So it's a different system, but also, our tradition is that you treat the president with a measure of respect of the sort you might give to the king or queen of Great Britain.

CONAN: And brings to mind the old crime we read about in the history books of lese majeste, which is basically be nice to the king or face the consequences.

Mr. DALLEK: Yes, exactly, exactly.

CONAN: And this is not to say, however, that outside the circumstances of a formal address to Congress or not in the president's presence, as it were, members of Congress or anybody else doesn't feel free to let loose with a little mockery.

Mr. DALLEK: Well, exactly, because he's also the head of one political party, and the king or queen of England is not seen as the head of a political party. And there have been instances in which a president has been mocked and booed in Congress. For example, Harry Truman in 1950, during a State of the Union address, pointed out that he didn't have enough money to finance, support the kinds of programs that he wished to back, and it was because of Republican tax cuts, he said. Well, this produced boos and jeers and dismissive laughter. This was during a State of the Union speech. So he wasn't called a liar, but he was openly attacked, and he turned beet red. He was angry about this.

CONAN: And we shall have to see what the punishment, if any, is meted out to Congressman Wilson. He has apologized to the president, and that has been accepted. Nevertheless, he has yet to apologize to the House of Representatives and may yet be reprimanded for that. We'll have to see whether that happens and indeed what the outcome is, but Fred Beuttler, there's been plenty of examples of members of Congress having been reprimanded for insulting each other.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Well, yes, very clearly. There has actually been several motions of reprimand brought up for individuals disparaging the president, but oftentimes those are seen as partisan issues. The last time we had a major reprimand was actually of the speaker, and that was of a bipartisan nature.

One of the things that's interesting that Mr. Dallek mentioned is the monarchial nature of the office. And if you look back, Thomas Jefferson decided not to appear before Congress. In some ways, he wasn't a very good speaker. He didn't feel that confident, but he also didn't want to be monarchial about it, having that official address. And so the tradition was, in the whole 19th century, that the president did not address Congress in person. The first president to do that after John Adams was actually Woodrow Wilson in 1913, that he actually addresses Congress. So there's been 113 years where there was no president speaking before Congress.

CONAN: Which is why every winter we call it the annual State of the Union message because it used to go to Capitol Hill as a statement, as a printed document, a message from the president, not necessarily as a speech, as you say, a 20th-century invention. Indeed, it might be broadly categorized as a radio invention, since that became a preferred means of transmission early on, and later, of course, they started broadcasting with pictures. It's beginning to catch on.

Fred Beuttler, thank you very much for your time today, appreciate it.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Thank you.

CONAN: Fred Beuttler is a deputy historian at the U.S. House of Representatives, and he was kind enough to join us today in Studio 3A. Presidential historian Robert Dallek is going to stay with us. And as we continue the conversation, we want to hear more from you. Where do you draw the line between dissent and disrespect? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We got this email from Susan(ph), and she wrote: Dear TALK OF THE NATION, I do not support President Obama. I did not vote for him. I do refer to him as President Obama because he is president of the United States. I believe this disrespect is carried over from President Bush. Now, it is the right's turn.

We're talking today about respect for the president and for the presidency, keeping in mind the vitriol directed at previous presidents, like George W. Bush. Where do you draw the line between dissent and disrespect? What's appropriate criticism, and when does that go too far? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation at our Web site, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is presidential historian Robert Dallek, who's written biographies of FDR, LBJ, JFK and Harry Truman, who I think is only referred to as HST in crossword puzzles. But Robert Dallek, talking about presidential criticism, and you read about the kind of vitriol directed against people like Abraham Lincoln. Ape was among the kinder words people directed at him. Outside of the halls of Congress, just about anything goes, right?

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah, exactly. In fact, Thomas Jefferson described the presidency as a splendid misery because of all this kind of criticism, the constant drumbeat of attacks. Every president has been subjected to it, and it's seen as part of our robust, democratic system. And of course, the press always feels very free to criticize the president. Now, of course, they don't use language like he's a liar or curse him out, although privately there are plenty of people who do that, but in the public prints and on the airwaves, they'll be more respectful, but they will offer very sharp criticism of every president.

CONAN: Here's an email from Vanessa(ph) in San Francisco. As a liberal and a supporter of our president, I have to wonder if a fellow liberal had shouted you lie to President Bush when he was spreading lies - she says - about WMDs, if I would be as angry as so many liberals are now. Although I agree that Wilson was out of line, I wish civility was held as a bipartisan standard.

And I guess that's the reason there are these rules in Congress, to make sure that whoever's in power at the moment, well, these things change over time and that there are bipartisan rules of civility.

Let's go to another caller, and this is Andrea(ph), Andrea with us from Tallahassee.

ADAM(ph) (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Andrea? You don't sound like an Andrea. Go ahead, please.

ADAM: Yeah, hi. So am I on?

CONAN: Yeah.

ADAM: Oh, sorry. This is Adam from Boston.

CONAN: Go ahead, Adam. I apologize.

ADAM: That's all right. The comment that I wanted to make was the following. I really think that we have to think about the current political climate and the last 30 years, where one of the two major political parties has had as a fundamental part of its platform the notion that government is inherently evil and that it is undeserving of civility.

Look at Joe Wilson and how he's been brought up politically. It's not such a leap to behave in the uncivil way that he behaved because he's sort of steeped in this mindset that anybody who is president is representative of this great evil called government. And I think that's actually a fairly new thing in the history of the country. I think, in my opinion, it's un-American because I think one thing our country was founded on was this notion of self-governance, and we should, you know, we should hold the institution as sacred, since that's the defining component of Americana, if you will.

And so I don't think it's a matter of merely who's civil or who's rude. I think you have to look at something much, much bigger that's gone on since the Southern strategy and since the Republicans got the presidency in 1980 by saying, you know, government, it doesn't solve the problem, it is the problem.

CONAN: And Robert Dallek, of course he's referring to Ronald Reagan, who famously, in his inaugural address, said government is the problem. I'm not sure he went so far as evil, but you could draw that inference.

Mr. DALLEK: Yeah, I mean, he said government's the problem, it's not the solution. But you know, there's been so much vitriol and anger toward the government for a very long time. Particularly, it's focused on presidents. Franklin Roosevelt came in for a great deal of abuse, verbal abuse, from something called the Liberty League, which saw him as becoming a dictator and like a Hitler or a Mussolini or a Stalin.

And Harry Truman, when he fired Douglas MacArthur, was attacked by Joe McCarthy as having been drunk on bourbon and Benedictine. There have been very ugly attacks on presidents.

But you know, Neal, there's also this, as your caller indicates, this long tradition of civility, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that people in this country are very apprehensive about the fact that we are, in many ways, a divided nation.

We're so different in terms of regions, in terms of religious backgrounds, of ethnicity, of race. And I think there's a lot of anxiety about the possibility that this can explode in violence, this can explode in something more than just verbal attacks. And of course, we did have that terrible civil war in which 620,000 Americans perished. So there's a lot of anxiety about this kind of criticism or debate, dispute, erupting into something more violent. And in a sense, we try to put a lid on it by saying well, there should be less criticism, or there should be a kind of deference to the president. And it's in many ways a good thing that we think in those terms because I think there are these fundamental divides in the country that we don't want to get out of hand.

CONAN: Let's get Andrea. We did find her, and I apologize for pushing the wrong button, Andrea with us from Tallahassee.

ANDREA (Caller): That's okay. Thank you for having me on. I do appreciate the historic context that you're providing us, the guest you have there now and the previous guest. But I think the big pink elephant in the room is race. As an African-American, you sometimes are reluctant to bring that up because you kind of get the sense that, oh well, here they go again, playing the quote-unquote "race card." But you know, be that as it may, with the history of the vitriol that's, you know, already been talked about with previous presidents, I just can't help but wonder how much of this has something to do with the man's racial background.

I mean, part of this for me goes back to last week, when you saw all of these controversies about having the president speak to schoolchildren. I can't remember a time when there ever was a problem with the president or a first lady, if you think about Nancy Reagan and the just-say-no stuff of the '80s, which is what I grew up with, you know, that ever being a controversy or people, you know, saying oh, you know, this person's going to indoctrinate my child. You know, what we saw, I think that certainly has to be unprecedented, and I can't help but wonder how much of it is racially motivated. Thank you, and I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, Andrea, thanks very much for the call, and the same thought had occurred to us. Indeed, we'd read about it in the Exploring Race column in the Chicago Tribune, which of course is conducted by Dawn Turner Trice, a regular contributor to this program who now joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Dawn, always nice to have you with us.

Ms. DAWN TURNER Ms. TRICE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And in your most recent column, you responded to Maureen Dowd's column from the New York Times on Saturday. And of course, she wrote that Congressman Wilson's shocking disrespect for the office of president convinced me some people just can't believe a black man is president, and we'll never accept it. And I wonder: How are your readers responding to this?

Ms. TRICE: Well, readers - my readers, often say to me that they hope that over the next four years, we're not always going to talk about race and that race will not be a factor in the discussions, and whenever someone criticizes the president, why does it always have to come back down to race? And I think that it's important - it's hard to tease out, as Andrea the caller just said, it's hard to quantify how much race plays a role, but it is - I mean, it is playing a role in this discussion, and we see it on so many different levels.

It's easier, more palatable, to disguise this - some of the uprisings as maybe a populist revolt, but there is something that's either maybe just a bit under the surface that speaks to - when people start to use words like - or phrases like we want to take back our America or that they're just so afraid of the direction that the country is going into. Now, I mean, you can say that it has to do with, you know, well, government/Obama has taken over the auto industry, or government/Obama is running up these ginormous deficits, but there's a part to that that may be code for: and there's a black man leading the charge.

CONAN: And this is not - well, let me quote Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who was asked in an interview about how much of the more-extreme anger at Obama, not just this incident but other ones, as well, is based upon his race - and she is no bomb thrower, by the way. As far as African-Americans are concerned, we think most of it is, and we think it's very unfortunate. We, as African-American people, of course, are very sensitive to it, and I wonder if you're seeing a racial divide amongst your readership on this.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely, and that happens. It continues to happen. It's amazing because what we saw on election night in Chicago's Grant Park, we saw all these people, white people and black people and Asians and Hispanics hugged up and gathered together, and we were hoping the election results kind of signaled maybe that something is changing. And I do think that something is changing. But there are a lot of cases that we've seen post the election, post-inauguration, in which people continue to divide into these same little groups, and they look at the same situation and see it quite differently.

CONAN: And, for example, we have this email from Cody(ph) in Minneapolis. The worst thing anyone can do is claim the disrespect to the president was in any way race-related. By opening the doors to this is to create an opportunity for people to make the Obama presidency about race and not the great things he is trying to accomplish.

And I wonder, Robert Dallek, those kinds of phrases that we were hearing that Dawn Turner Trice was talking about, I worry about the future of my country. I want to take my country back. Are those unprecedented? Is this a code language - the kind of code language we've learned to try to parse out in the past?

Mr. DALLEK: Well, I think they are. And I agree that - how could it be - not be an element of race and all this, you know? The country has struggled with this issue of race for centuries. And what I think back to is John Kennedy, the first Catholic to be elected. And before he was elected, there was so much acrimony about his religion and all these fears that were being voiced that he would become the representative of the pope in Rome and our country would be run out of Rome rather than out of the White House. But, you know, what gives me hope is that this subsided. Kennedy's presidency demonstrated to people that this was a vacant concern. This was pointless. And I'm hoping that the Obama presidency will produce a reduction of this kind of racial tension in the United States.

But I think the point is very well-taken that the expressions we're hearing are kind of sub rosa expressions of antagonism to his being an African-American and that to the feeling that these other folks - or I don't know how to categorize them - but people who resent his presence in the White House, that somehow they feel pushed aside. They feel diminished and losing control of their country. But I hope his presidency, frankly, will be so successful that people are going to say, well, you know, this issue of race is not all that important when you elect somebody to the highest office.

CONAN: Go ahead, Dawn.

Ms. TRICE: I'm sorry. Neal, I have readers who have said to me that Obama is going to look after blacks, and he will - he's going to turn the country into a welfare state. And if you look beyond the absurdity of this, it's really fear. And the talk about the - you know, as we said, we need to take back our country, there's a contingent of the population that's just afraid that a black man will sympathize more with blacks than with whites and they will be left to fend for themselves.

There was an article on the Fox News Web that said health reform was a version of reparations for slavery in which whites would have to pay and blacks would benefit. And this is just - it's pure insanity, but it's something that people - when you're afraid, you can easily glom onto it.

CONAN: Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune. Also with us, presidential historian Robert Dallek.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. And Rick is on the line from Loveland in Ohio.

RICK (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RICK: My comment was that when I was watching and I saw the speech and I heard the comment, and I was surprised at the level of the visceral response within myself at how angry I became. The reason I say I'm surprised is because I'm fairly moderate. I don't, you know, I don't lean one way or the other too heavily, although I certainly think I fall more towards the liberal. And I think a good illustrator of this particular point is not too long ago, overseas, there was a movie made about an assassination plot to kill Bush. This also made me really angry. And I see president - or Representative Wilson's remarks as just divisive, un-American and making me surprisingly angry.

CONAN: Hmm. Interesting. And, Dawn Turner Trice, of course, African-Americans, and not just African-Americans, have been deeply worried about the safety of the first candidate Obama and now President Obama right from the start.

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely. It's something that we've heard over and over again that on one hand, he represents the best of who we could be, but he also represents and draws out - in some of us - the worst of who we can be.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Rick. Here's an email from Dennis in Aguadilla in Puerto Rico. I have to believe that public attacks on the president will weaken our credibility in the face of our enemies. They must think us great, bumbling fools.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. Steve is with us, Steve calling from Mustang in Oklahoma.

STEVE (Caller): Hello, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

STEVE: Yeah. I just think that Joe Wilson was just pointing out the obvious. And to hear the laugh, to bemoaning(ph) what's happening is - basically, this is just payback for the obscene way they treated George Bush.

CONAN: No one shouted at George W. Bush when he addressed a joint session of Congress.

STEVE: Oh, they shouted, they booed him during his state of address - State of the Union Address. Absolutely, they did. So, you know, it's - I can agree with one of your email people that this is - it's the right's turn now. Sixty million people didn't vote for Obama, and the left needs to realize it. So what goes around comes around.

CONAN: What goes around comes around. And so, the next president from the right should expect the same?

STEVE: Absolutely. It was all thrown out. The - what your commentator is talking about, about the traditional civility and what have you was thrown out the window, all bets are off now. So, it's, you know, it's open game. Whenever the president is up there, he should be able to take it. If he can't take it, he ought to get out.

CONAN: Can't stand the heat, as Harry Truman said, get out of the kitchen.

STEVE: Exactly.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.

And, Robert Dallek, as Truman's historian, we'll give you the last 30 seconds here.

Mr. DALLEK: Well, I feel the gentleman's comments are unfortunate because I don't think all bets are off. I think the great majority in this country really prefers bipartisanship, but kind of comity, C-O-M-I-T-Y, that we find means to accommodate each other and work out differences.

And this is what the president has been striving for. He's not someone who promotes acrimony, but he's been working very hard to try and bring people together. He understands, as the first African-American president, that there are going to be these tensions. And being mindful of it, I believe he's trying very hard to create a spirit of bipartisanship and…

CONAN: Robert Dallek's most recent book, "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power." Forthcoming next year, "The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope." Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DALLEK: My pleasure.

CONAN: And, of course, Dawn Turner Trice joined us from WBEZ in Chicago, our member station. She writes the "Exploring Race" column for The Chicago Tribune.

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