In the comments on John’s post on Obama’s speech last night, Tim Burns offers “a brief addendum on the troubling accusations of lying.” He writes:
Joe Wilson’s accusation of lying has already been roundly condemned, as it should be. The presumption of honorableness, and hence of the possibility of honest disagreement, is crucial to the practice of free speech and democratic debate. An accusation of lying is for that reason considered in parliamentary democracies to be “unparliamentary language,” would get a member “named,” i.e., suspended, and would require a formal apology. It’s good to see that Wilson has already sought to apologize.
Trouble is, President Obama has not. And his speech must be condemned on the same grounds as Wilson’s outburst. Before Wilson’s outburst, Obama–delivering prepared remarks–had already accused his opponents of lying–not by name, to be sure, but as “prominent politicians.” And in doing so, he explicitly attributed malicious motives to them: “Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.”
It would be interesting to know whether any president before now has ever done this in a formal address to congress. And it would be interesting to speculate on what the formal penalty should be for doing so. A prime minister must in a parliamentary democracy avoid unparliamentary language, as must any other member of parliament. What should happen when the speaker is the president, appearing as invited guest? Again, has this ever happened before and if so, with what result?
Although it doesn’t answer that particular question, Omri Ceren provides a useful video flashback: “Dems shout and boo at Bush during 2005 SOTU.”