On the desk of Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), you’ll find a copy of a book he’s owned since the Nixon administration. While a bit frayed at the edges — its pages well-thumbed — it’s in good condition. It’s signed by the author, and has been treasured by its owner of over 40 years. Wilson says it’s one of the best books ever written. You may too. It’s called God and Man at Yale, by William F. Buckley Jr.
“Now, I don’t want to ruin your reputation,” says Wilson, “but I’ve told people over the years, when asked ‘what kind of a Republican are you?’ that I’m a National Review Republican.” So began my conversation with the South Carolina congressman on Wednesday, a week after he hollered “you lie!” during President Obama’s health-care address to Congress. “I thought that this would be over by Friday,” says Wilson. “It should have been over.”
#ad#Since his yell heard ’round the world, Wilson says he has thought often about WFB, his political hero, as he deals with the consequences of his outburst. “National Review — online, in print — means a lot to me,” says Wilson. He then referenced a July 2004 speech he made on the House floor in honor of WFB, NR’s founder, in which he thanked him for his “service to the American political dialogue.” America, Wilson said then, “stands on the shoulders of giants: men such as Edmund Burke, T. S. Eliot, F. A. Hayek, Whittaker Chambers, and William F. Buckley Jr. Of all these theorists, no one has made a deeper and more profound impression on my life than William F. Buckley Jr.”
“I bring it up because what I said then is what I believe,” says Wilson. “Mr. Buckley defined the conservative movement. He wanted us to have a strong national defense to defeat Communism and terrorism, as well as limited government, lower taxation, personal responsibility, and individual freedom. Those have certainly been the guiding principles for me. I have been a National Review subscriber since high school.” And, he says with emphasis, “I truly believe in civility.”
On Tuesday, the House formally rebuked Wilson (240 yeas, 179 nays), a move he calls a “political stunt.” More frustrating to Wilson are the comments made by former president Jimmy Carter in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams on Tuesday, where Carter implied that critics of President Obama’s policies are fueled by racism. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American,” Carter said. Wilson has harsh words for the former president: “I have disagreed with President Carter on his attack on the Jewish community, and his attack on the people of Israel. Now I disagree with his attack on his fellow Southerners.”
Beyond Carter and the House vote, Wilson says the past few days have given him time to reflect on what exactly happened last Wednesday, and what it all means. “I’m very proud of my older son, Alan,” says Wilson. “He said ‘Dad, I’ve known you for 36 years. I know what a gentleman you are. You’ve raised four Eagle Scouts. And I know what happened to you. You had a town-hall moment.’ But once I said what I said, I did not leave the floor. As a person respectful of the president, I did not walk off the floor, and I stayed for the whole speech. The moment the speech was over, as people stood, I walked out of the side of the chamber. Then, I walked through the rotunda, and to my condo.”
Within minutes, he started to field calls. “I have two cell phones — one political, one government — both of them started ringing,” recalls Wilson. “I was told that Rahm Emanuel wanted to speak to me. I said, hey, great, I want to speak with him. They gave me the cell-phone number and I was surprised: He answered the phone. I said, hey, Rahm, I apologize. I would have never done that intentionally. Rahm’s response was this: ‘Let’s get on now to a civil discussion of the issue.’ I said, absolutely, and that was our discussion.”
#page#Though Wilson has gained a national profile this past week, he admits that it’s odd to be a conservative hero based on an incident for which he has apologized. However, the responses to his remarks and apology “have been very moving and heartwarming,” says Wilson. “I have a wonderful staff. They know me. They know that I apologized with great sincerity. They have been so supportive and put together an extraordinary public campaign to let the world know who Joe Wilson is and how it was a town-hall moment. Of course, then, I became the Washington Democrats’ and MoveOn.org’s number-one target. They raised a record amount of money for my opponent. A lot of wonderful people have been responding — by letters, e-mails, phone calls — and we’ve moved from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. And in contributions, we’ll be able to match that Democrat.”
Of course, Wilson is also getting plenty of negative press, as well. “I wish the press attacks would begin with a few facts about me: He’s the father of four Eagle Scouts, the father of four members of the U.S. military today, two who are veterans of Iraq. My third son has served in Egypt and my fourth son just graduated from Camp America in Fort Lewis, Washington,” says Wilson. “After they identify what kind of dad I am, then they can go after me. I understand the circumstances — the politics of personal destruction are alive and well. But I would prefer, as the president said in his speech and Rahm Emanuel said from the White House that night, the discussion were now about the issue of health-insurance reform. We need to look at many alternatives; I’ve been working with the Republican Study Committee and Dr. Tom Price, our chairman. We have a really positive bill that champions free-market initiatives rather than the expansion of government.”
#ad#Wilson then steered the discussion to his concerns about health-care reform. What he says was “appalling” about Obama’s speech — and part of the reason he said he cried out — was that beforehand, he and his House colleagues were given, not a copy of the speech, but laminated talking points. “I kept looking at it and saying ‘this just can’t be’ — one of the statements claimed that the president’s preferred reforms would not add a dime to the deficit,” says Wilson. “That took my breath away. I really shouldn’t have been looking at it as often as I did, but I kept looking at it and thinking ‘this is the most unbelievable thing that I have ever been handed on the House floor.’ This had no truth to it at all. Adults are supposed to sit there and read that and not be appalled? What was challenging for me, literally and intellectually, was that whatever bill the talking points described was significantly different from H.R. 3200. I’m not aware of every item, but I’ve taken care to read the entire bill twice.”
Before we hung up, Wilson said he looked up at his wall, where he has a framed thank-you letter from WFB. Nearby are a few more WFB books, original editions signed by the author. “In 1956, I was nine years old,” says Wilson. “I used to get Coca-Colas for the poll workers in downtown Charleston. I revered the Eisenhower family. Everyone was Democratic then, but I knew that I was Republican. National Review was the first and only conservative magazine that I was aware of. When I got to high school in the early Sixties, I started subscribing.”
At the end of the day, Wilson says his comments came at the “wrong place at the wrong time.” Of course, standing athwart history and — literally — yelling “Stop” has its time and place. Joe Wilson says he learned that lesson this week.
— Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.