Consider two scenes.
The first occurs during the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954, when Joseph Welch, an attorney for the for the U.S. Army asks Senator Joseph McCarthy to provide evidence to the attorney general of his accusations that there are communists working in U.S. defense plants. Instead, McCarthy names someone from Welch’s law office in Boston. The exchange leads to Welch’s now-famous retort to McCarthy:
“Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator…. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Now shift to 55 years later. The President of the United States is delivering a speech on healthcare reform to a joint session of Congress. At one point in his speech, President Obama refutes recent reports that healthcare bill proposals would include so-called “death panels” that will decide the fate of elderly citizens. “It’s a lie, plain and simple” he says. As the president continues in his speech he says that there are no provisions to provide healthcare to illegal immigrants in any of the bills. South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson shouts out:
Both Welch and Wilson called people out on what they viewed to be misrepresentations. Welch is widely heralded for being among the first to help bring down a Senator intent on a communist witch hunt. Wilson, however, is castigated by members of his own party.
Senator John McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent in the presidential election, calls Wilson’s outburst “totally disrespectful.”
The reaction to Wilson’s outburst begs the question of why it was so wrong for him to shout out what he believed to be “truth to power” when it was OK for Obama to sweepingly call out liars in his speech and admirable for Welch to confront McCarthy while the whole world was watching. (Well, maybe not the whole world, but certainly a good chunk of U.S. citizens watching the televised hearings.)
Welch’s act came after McCarthy raised a colleague’s name in an effort to divert attention from the request made to support his allegations. By confronting McCarthy, Welch effectively disarmed McCarthy and continued to focus on the issues at hand in the hearings. Welch and McCarthy were engaged in a hearing where each had the right to express their views, however abhorrent Welch may have found McCarthy’s comments.
Obama shone light on what he viewed to be the lie, rather than call out specific liars. Granted, his comments may still have irked those who had been talking about death panels, but he never singled out, say, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as being a liar for continuing to talk about death panels. “You, Governor Palin are a liar” rings far differently from “It’s a lie, plain and simple.”
Where Wilson stepped over the line was in the method and forum in which he chose to deliver his message. He and Obama were not engaged in a hearing. His was a direct assault on the character of the person speaking not the issue he raised.
The reason why some members of his own party joined in the criticism of his behavior was that Wilson breached the agreed-upon norms of how members of Congress should act. By doing this his actions were not only uncivil but struck many as unethical.
“Ethics is how we behave when we decide we belong together” write Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers, who wrote in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999).
Wilson fell short of behaving in a way that he and his colleagues deemed appropriate when they work together on important issues facing the country.