Sorry Is Enough

Democrats make themselves look foolish by asking Wilson for a second apology

“After a certain amount of arm-twisting by Republican leaders, [South Carolina Congressman Joe] Wilson did apologize for his behavior,” wrote New York Times columnist Gail Collins in her column last Friday. “Now we are going to move on to arguing about the apology.”

Collins’s level-headed analysis is a welcome respite in the midst of the D.C. media storm following South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson’s barbaric heckling of President Obama last week. More embarrassing even than Wilson’s outburst is the way in which politicians, journalists, and commentators have responded to his unwarranted remarks.

The remarks themselves are already legendary. During Obama’s address to the joint session of Congress on health-care last Wednesday, Wilson uncouthly interjected “You lie!” in response to the president’s (largely truthful) debunking of the notion that undocumented workers would receive coverage under any of the Democrats’ five proposed health-care bills.

The breach of decorum was roundly condemned by all. But, predictably, Wilson promptly apologized to the White House that same night in a telephone call to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Vice President Joe Biden. Obama publicly accepted Wilson’s apology the next day.

If it were not Washington, this apology would suffice. Wilson did, after all, apologize to the man whom he had wronged, and his apology was accepted. Unfortunately, Washington operates according to a very different set of rules than the rest of us.

Almost immediately, newly Obama-supporting Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania opined to liberal talk radio host Bill Press, “[Wilson] apologized immediately afterward but I don’t think that’s adequate... If an apology is the consequence of an outburst, I think we can expect more—that’s not a sufficient penalty. That’s not a sufficient price to pay. I’m not saying the guy should be kicked out of the House…but there ought to be some rebuke, reprimand, censure—something that will discourage that kind of conduct in the future. If you do that to the president, it’s open season.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer echoed this sentiment, proposing that Wilson be censured should he not apologize on the floor of the House of Representatives, as if it were the House that Wilson had wronged rather than the president to whom Wilson had already apologized. “I would like to see Mr. Wilson come to the floor and apologize to the House,” Hoyer told reporters.

Defending the Democrats’ overzealous persecution of the ill-mannered legislator, one Democratic aide told Politico, “If [Wilson] had just said he was sorry, nobody would be considering any of this.”

Surely, this is a truly novel notion. That an apology—an apology that was accepted, moreover—is not the equivalent of saying “sorry” must certainly be news to most.

In an act that has curiously been labeled “defiant,” Wilson responded to the escalating call for a second apology by stating that, “I have apologized one time. The apology was accepted by the president, by the vice president, who I know. I am not apologizing again.”

Wilson, ironically, is now the voice of reason. The fact of the matter is that he did already apologize, and it is simply silly for him to do so twice, especially to anyone other than whom he wronged. Right now, the country largely sympathizes with the Democratic perspective that Wilson was horrendously out of line, but should Democrats overreach—as they are wont to do—they are in danger of reversing the public’s sympathies.

The White House appears to have recognized this, though its less savvy House colleagues may not. When asked about the censure resolution, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “We take Congressman Wilson at his word that he apologizes for an outburst that he regrets.”

The president, once again, has chosen to rise above the fray and appear magnanimous as both his opponents and allies continue to squabble. Other Democrats should follow his example. Otherwise, they risk undoing all of the political good that Wilson’s zealotry unwittingly worked for them through an equally unreasonable zealotry of their own.

Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.