In praise of heckling the President - Macleans.ca
 

In praise of heckling the President

What’s the big deal? The prime minister takes worse abuse in the Commons every day.


 

I was going to write a column on the whole “You Lie” non-scandal, but Alex Massie of the Daily Beast does it with more wit and vim than I would have managed. The nutshell: What’s the big deal? In a parliamentary system, the prime minister takes worse abuse in the Commons every day. The genius of our system is that we’ve institutionalised opposition to the government of the day — we give it an official title and residence, special privileges, and sometimes even call it a “government in waiting”.

The key, of course, is the separation of head of government and head of state:

Insulting Queen Elizabeth is one thing; insulting Gordon Brown is practically an obligation. Disrespecting the former is an act of treason; disrespecting the latter and his office, a necessity: Every Wednesday, Brown must endure Prime Minister’s Questions, during which his enemies in Parliament grill him. Prime Minister’s Questions may not be the be all and end all, but it affords an opportunity for “telling truth to power” that does not exist in the regal American system.

Americans are a bunch of wusses.


 
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In praise of heckling the President

  1. Yeah but Obama is not a Prime Minister. As a matter of fact, I'd say that the President of the United States is to Americans what the Queen of England is to the Brits. In that sense, Joe Wilson's heckling was not just disrespectful, it was unprecedented. No President had ever received that kind of treatment from a Congressman in the middle of a Presidential address.

  2. Yeah but Obama is not a Prime Minister. As a matter of fact, I'd say that the President of the United States is to Americans what the Queen of England is to the Brits. In that sense, Joe Wilson's heckling was not just disrespectful, it was unprecedented.

    • Oh, yes, clearly. Totally unprecedented.

      (Also, for someone going by the handle "PolJunkie," you seem a little embarrassingly fuzzy on difference between the political role of the US presidency compared to that of the British crown.)

    • Oh, yes, clearly. Totally unprecedented.

      (Also, for someone going by the handle "PolJunkie," you seem a little embarrassingly fuzzy on the difference between the political role of the US presidency compared to that of the British crown.)

    • Oh, yes, clearly. Totally unprecedented.

      (Also, for someone going by the handle "PolJunkie," you seem a little embarrassingly fuzzy on the difference between the political role of the US presidency compared to that of the British crown. At such time that the president is expected to display no opinions whatsoever, and relegates himself to being a constitutionally-ceremonial head of state with political power exercised primarily by a separate head of government, then you might have a point.)

        • you understand that Reagan was not in Congress in that clip right? (which is not to say that it was appropriate in the House but that it has nothing to do with the precedent being discussed).

          • We were talking about whether or not it was apprpriate to heckle a head-of-state. I don't really think its germane whether they are at home or not. In fact, it's prpoobably even more offensive to do it when they are travelling. In that case, they really are representing the country and not the executive branch.

          • again, as per above, i wasn't commenting on whether it is more or less appropriate anywhere (and I agree that it is even more offensive in the Reagan case), but the original claim that this is without precedence was specifically tied to a president being heckled in congress.

      • actually, republicans disagree with you AVR, insisting that indeed while president is not royalty the Office of the POTUS ought to be granted the same reverence. http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/10/feehery.he

        and you ought to watch the video again. the booing and general heckling you are comparing this too in that video also took place immediately prior to Wilson's outburst. nobody objected to that. it is the actual nature of the attack that is objected to, especially given its inaccuracy.

        • It sure is lucky that I don't speak for the Republican congressional delegation, or vice versa, then.

          • huh, funny, I never suggested you did avr. just thought it was worth mentioning another viewpoint is all.

    • who gives a s*** about heckling the queen? Its worse to call a prime minister a liar. There is a line between heckling during a debate (and even then calling someone a liar is extremely rare) and expressing profound disrespect during a speech to someone that has been elected by the majority of the people in your country. Without meaning to sound colonialist, as a Brit it's rather quaint to hear someone defending a southern republican by suggesting that Obama isn't the queen. (I appreciate you are not defending Wilson PolJunkie, this is aimed at everyone's comments, but equally Obama is not the Queen and it isn't treason to heckle the Queen unless you lived in the 17th century)

  3. At least he kept his shoes on.

  4. I'm still intrigued by the fact that the British Prime Minister only answers questions, once a week.

    • Actually you should watch it on CPAC sometime. The PM gets all the questions for 45 minutes or so. It would probably be an improvement over our system.

      • Though some of that 45 minutes includes questions from members of the prime minister's own party. Usually these questions are like "Mr. Prime Minister, would you say our government is doing an awesome job?" Still, it is a very confrontational system that requires a well-briefed PM. Australia appears to be similar (at least to me). Here is one of their greatest hits:

        John Howard's "great motion"
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwKgt3lbsG4

        Paul Keating's attack on the Liberal party's platform
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAAf9nSd3ig

  5. In a parliamentary system, the prime minister takes worse abuse in the Commons every day.

    True, but in parliamentary systems, at least ours and Britain's, you can't cross the line by calling someone a liar. That sort of thing will get your thrown out of the House in short order.

    • That sort of thing will get your thrown out of the House in short order.

      Oh, Fuddle Duddle.

        • Andrew Sullivan has lucid, coherent beliefs solely on the subject of Andrew Sullivan.

    • Obama called Palin a liar (albeit not by name) in the speech itself.

    • You can not only imply that somebody is lying, but that line is often crossed at all levels of government. I have encountered David Miller in a bar, complaining that somebody called him a liar. In Dion's confrontation with Harper during the December crisis, he shouted "the Prime Minister lied" a number of times.

      I don't think Joe Wilson was offering particularly constructive debate. But part of what makes us a democracy is the willingness to entertain sometimes raucous debate that we may disagree with. If the US had a more adversarial tradition of debate (the US has a culture of speech-making not debate – if you watch their debates the candidates speak past each other), not only could Joe Wilson shout "you lie", but other people could call Joe Wilson an idiot, with proof.

      Part of the reason Americans are ill-informed is because of their speech-making traditions. Ideas are not contrasted and compared, they are presented separately, and often without any clash. Because people can choose which speeches they listen to they don't necessarily hear the other side. By contrast, if you watch Question period, or parliament, you can hear both sides of the argument (though they tend to only show a few clips, which is unfortunate).

  6. The level of debate in the UK House of Commons is far higher than what we see here in Canada. Even though the PM is only answer questions once a week, he is up for the entire period. Here's the link if you wish to view it online:
    http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Home.aspx

  7. "Americans are a bunch of wusses."

    oh good some latent machismo….srsly….. what, pres tell, does yelling “You Lie” add to anything… in case you hadn't noticed, people everywhere have pretty much panned the state of decorum in QP and PMQs as detracting from getting anything valuable in done (see your colleague Wells for example)…. perhaps it is helpful to distinguish srs questions from defamation?

    • The point is more to distinguish legitimate outrage from mere prissiness.

      • sorry Andrew, I guess I don't get it. so than do you want more of this type of 'crticism'?

        • No, I’m just saying that someone hecklingt the president when he’s in the midst of a partisan speech is not nearly the serious expression of lese majeste that the American pundits are making it out to be. Did you read the Daily Beast piece I linked? It makes the point quite well, I think.

          • What we have here … is a failure to communicate.

            Assuming your comment is in response to mine, mine was not in response to your piece. You and I are in agreement. I was responding to those above who think that heckling Obama is blasphemous.

          • What we have here … is a failure to communicate.

            Assuming your comment is in response to mine, mine was not in response to your piece. You and I are in agreement. I was responding to those above who think that heckling Obama is blasphemous or that calling him a liar is unconscionable.

          • Well it most certainly is blasphemous, that is, to those misguided ones who've made this man their little god.

      • sorry, I guess I don't get it. so than do you want more of this type of 'crticism'?

  8. One big difference between a Constitutional Monarchy/Parliamentary system and a Republican/Congrssional system like in the States is that there the President is both King and Prime Minister/Head of State and Head of Government.

    In a system such as France or Poland there is both a President with real political powers and a Prime Minster who runs the government and is in charge of domestic affairs. Other Republics like India and other former British colonies who no longer have a GG have a President who solely takes care of the ceremonial, non-political functions required while a Prime Minister is the Head of Government just like here.

    The way how the American system is set up is what leads to some of the problems as was seen with the "You lie!" incident. While yelling that at the Monarch would be highly disrespectful to say the least, yelling that at the Prime Minister is almost de rigeur. So what does one do when they are one-in-the-same person?

  9. Whats the big deal! Oh that rights its basically illegal to criticize Obama since he is the 2nd coming of the Messiah LOL!!!!

    • Must not mau-mau the Kenyan Kommunist, eh ?

    • Must not mau-mau the Kikuyu Kommunist, eh ?

  10. I couldn't agree more. The Americans created a King to replace King George; meanwhile, we retained our King and gradually removed him from government. Now they're stuck with an 18th-century system (and an 18th-century mentality) that seems very superstitious by comparison. And they have the nerve to preen themselves about being the most democratic system on earth!

  11. I couldn't agree more. The Americans created a King to replace King George; meanwhile, we retained our King and gradually removed him from government. Now they're stuck with an 18th-century system (and an 18th-century mentality) that seems very superstitious by comparison. And the have the nerve to preen themselves about being the most democratic system on earth!

  12. (1) If heckling is inappropriate during a speech to Congress, that's because it interferes with the speech, not because it's disrespectful to the President. The President is just a man. Have as little respect for him as you please. But at least hear him out. With this in mind, no one should be heckled while speaking in the House. Democrats, who have been quite disrespectful in the past, would do well to keep this in mind.

    (2) If the argument is that you can't call accuse someone of lying in Congress, then Obama should be censured. He didn't just make an outburst and apologize, he called Sarah Palin a liar (not by name, but clearly nonetheless) in his prepared remarks. To date there has been no apology. One might argue (wrongly in my opinion) that this accusation was accurate, but if so then Wilson's outburst is also subject to the same standard. And the case can be made that Obama was indeed lying when he stated that Obamacare would cover neither medical services for illegals, nor abortions for the general public. If these were true then the Democrats would not have voted down measures to exclude such services.

  13. (1) If heckling is inappropriate during a speech to Congress, that's because it interferes with the speech, not because it's disrespectful to the President. The President is just a man. Have as little respect for him as you please but at least hear him out. With this in mind no one should be heckled while speaking in the House. Democrats, who have been quite disrespectful in the past, would do well to keep this in mind.

    (2) If the argument is that you can't call accuse someone of lying in Congress, then Obama should be censured. He didn't just make an outburst and apologize, he called Sarah Palin a liar (not by name, but clearly nonetheless) in his prepared remarks. To date there has been no apology. One might argue (wrongly in my opinion) that this accusation was accurate, but if so then Wilson's outburst is also subject to the same standard. And the case can be made that Obama was indeed lying when he stated that Obamacare would cover neither medical services for illegals, nor abortions for the general public. If these were true then the Democrats would not have voted down measures to exclude such services.

  14. (1) If heckling is inappropriate during a speech to Congress, that's because it interferes with the speech, not because it's disrespectful to the President. The President is just a man. Have as little respect for him as you please but at least hear him out. With this in mind no one should be heckled while speaking in the House. Democrats, who have been quite disrespectful in the past, would do well to keep this in mind.

    (2) If the argument is that you can't accuse someone of lying in Congress, then Obama should be censured. He didn't just make an outburst and apologize, he called Sarah Palin a liar (not by name, but clearly nonetheless) in his prepared remarks. To date there has been no apology. One might argue (wrongly in my opinion) that this accusation was accurate, but if so then Wilson's outburst is also subject to the same standard. And the case can be made that Obama was indeed lying when he stated that Obamacare would cover neither medical services for illegals, nor abortions for the general public. If these were true then the Democrats would not have voted down measures to exclude such services.

  15. What Joe Wilson said, and when he said it, and where he said it, was unprecedented. It's a little snotty and too-cute to claim prissiness, which is the impression you get from reading Massie's piece, when, again, what Wilson said was unprecedented. So accepting this as the point of departure, we can now smuggle in our ridiculously blinkered assumptions about "decorum" and its future in congressional fora. Respectfully, blog post FAIL.

  16. Massie is often a good read. I became a fan of Massie's last summer after I read his humorous, and accurate, description of Biden after he was announced as Obama's pick for V-P.

  17. I agree, there are far too many drama queens in politics today, in both Canada and the US. So the guy heckled inappropriately. He apologized. Case closed.
    Instead we have silly outrage for a non-event. And the linked article is correct, the speech was a political speech, intended to advance an agenda, and therefore it is not shocking to see strong reactions. It should have been a debate and not a speech.

    • Should've been a debate, not a speech! Too many darned drama queens! Unfortunately, the male queens are worse than the female queens!

  18. Got the end of that a bit wrong, sorry, I've conflated both arguments – to recap. Obama not Queen and its worse to diss a prime minister than a Queen.

  19. I think there is a difference between heckling someone during a debate or QP and heckling someone during a formal speech. I would equate the latter, in the Canadian context, with heckling during the throne speech. It is, no doubt, partisan, but the context makes heckling inappropriate. Usually, the opposition saves it for the scrum afterwards.

  20. (1) If heckling is inappropriate during a speech to Congress, that's because it interferes with the speech, not because it's disrespectful to the President. The President is just a man. Have as little respect for him as you please but at least hear him out. With this in mind no one should be heckled while speaking in the House. Democrats, who have been quite disrespectful in the past, would do well to keep this in mind.

    (2) If the argument is that you can't accuse someone of lying in Congress then Obama should be censured. He didn't just make an outburst and apologize, he called Sarah Palin a liar (not by name, but clearly nonetheless) in his prepared remarks. To date there has been no apology. One might argue (wrongly in my opinion) that this accusation was accurate, but if so then Wilson's outburst is also subject to the same standard. And the case can be made that Obama was indeed lying when he stated that Obamacare would cover neither medical services for illegals, nor abortions for the general public. If these claims were true then the Democrats would not have voted down measures to exclude such services.

    • "One might argue (wrongly in my opinion) that this accusation was accurate…"

      So you argue that the proposed legislation introduces death panels. I call bullsh*t. Can you back that up with anything credible? Seriously, you're a Death Panels true believer?

  21. So, then, how much debate and coverage in the USA these last few days has been over the dismantling and rebuilding of the US health care system? And, how much has been over the "you lie!" and the apology and the gracious acceptance and…

    Right. Pretty serious country they've got there, eh?

  22. I don't know.
    What would we think of some random MP started heckling Madam Jean as she read Harper's throne speech?

    Nothing wrong with calling someone who's lieing a liar. But to scream it out like that, during a Presidential address…. I don't know. Doesn't seem right to me. It's kind of a silly argument to equate a Presidential address to Congress with the absurd theatrics of Question Period.

    • We would think the heckler was an asshole. But what was the nature of Obama's speech? TO me it was clearly a partisan speech on a divisive issue. He was making that speech wearing his head of government hat (and probably abusing the purpose of addresses to congress, given that the opportunity is usually reserved for state of the union type deals, and post-9/11 pep talks).

  23. I think the biggest problem with combining a head of state and head of government is that the personal problems of a president become political problems that plague the country. Since the president is also the symbolic father of the country, they must adhere to certain standards of conduct. When they cheat on their spouses (eg. Clinton or Grover Cleveland) or run after super-models (ie. Sarkozy) it gets in the way of their doing their job. By contrast, when the British heads of state did the same, politics as usual continued in Westminster. Similarly, if Michelle Jean (who, I know, is not our head of state technically) decided she was a separatist after all, and did some blow off some nude lesbian hooker, it would not influence parliamentary procedure. At the same time, because we don't demand of our leaders that they be "presidential" we can be led by a paunchy hockey dad or, if 2008 went differently, a nerdy professor. You can't predict Canadian elections by the height of party leaders to the same extent as you can in the US, for instance. Canadian politicians have had affairs with little impact on their jobs as well, for instance, Mike Harris and Ernie Eves both almost certainly had affairs (you may not like them, but at least their personal life did not impede the business of government). .

  24. Its just that the truth hurts and no politician can tolerated being called a liar even if its true. Hurts their pride. So they hide behind the excuse that it is disrepectfull to call them so. Really a spade is a spade.
    By the way if the Queen was caught in a lie, it is the right of any Canadian to then call her a liar. She has no more rights than the rest of us.

  25. in the US, the President is the head of state, its like yelling at the GG in the middle of the throne speech, or throwing an egg at a visiting british monarch. you just don't do it. as a US citizen you are expected that if you don't respect the man in office that you will respect the office, and i kinda think he passed that line