Alex Massie

Heckling Obama

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I've a piece up at the Daily Beast arguing that Congressman Joe Wilson shouldn't have apologised for heckling Barack Obama during the latter's campaigning health care speech the other night:

Trivial though it may seem, this brouhaha highlights a great flaw in the American system: You elect a monarch. In olden days and on the old continent, criticizing the monarch might limit your life chances. So too, alas, in the American capital today, as the arbiters of acceptable Washington indecency—that is, the Davids Broder and Gergen—decry your shortage of civility and surfeit of vulgarity.

The convention that Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the President in His Presence elides the great difference known to every Briton—that between insulting the head of state and insulting the mere head of the executive branch of government.

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.

America’s problem is that it has combined the head of state and the head of the executive branch into a single office, and it can no longer distinguish between the two roles. Obama’s health-care address was not given in his role as head of state. It was, rather, a political speech made by—pinch yourselves—a mere politician seeking to advance his own political agenda.

As such, there seems no compelling reason for supposing that it be listened to in respectful, forelock-tugging silence. Silly Joe Wilson for forgetting that.


UPDATE Yes, I know that Erskine May prohibits chaps from accusing other chaps of terminlogical inexactitudes in the House and so Mr Wilson's outburst would have been ruled out of order at Westminster. But that's not the point.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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