The Speaker’s Lobby: Seen and Not Heard

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

27 January 2009

The proverb says that children are to be seen and not heard.

And some members of Congress believe that adage should apply to them, too.

Put Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) in that camp as President Obama travels to Capitol Hill to deliver his State of the Union address tonight.

Everyone knows what happened the last time Mr. Obama spoke to a Joint Session of Congress back in September.

During his address, the president argued that his health care reform plan wouldn’t cover illegal immigrants. Wilson took umbrage with Mr. Obama’s assertion. From his seat near the aisle on the Republican side of the chamber, Wilson jabbed his right index finger at President Obama and catcalled “You lie!”

Wilson was a little-known backbencher before his infamous charge. An obscure lawmaker rarely sought-out by reporters except to discuss Camp Lejeune or the Marine Corps. But Wilson can’t escape the limelight any more. His dubious dustup with President Obama instantly burned Wilson’s name into the public conscience. His shout-out became the punch line of late-night jokes and the centerpiece of a Saturday Night Live skit. The South Carolina Republican morphed into a darling of the right and those who opposed the health care reform bill. And even though the GOP tapped Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) to deliver the official Republican response to the president’s September speech, many conservatives believe that Wilson’s outburst was the true Republican response.

Wilson no longer toils in obscurity. When the networks take the House chamber live tonight, the anchors and photographers will scan the chamber, looking for Wilson. Expect them to discuss who sits with him. And for a speech of this magnitude, Wilson’s now propelled himself to Hillary Clinton territory. Harry Reid territory. Patrick Kennedy territory.

If Mr. Obama talks about the Clintons’ failed effort to approve health care in 1994, expect a reaction shot from the Secretary of State. If the president mentions race, you’ll see a tight shot of the Senate Majority Leader. If there’s a line about the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), the camera will focus on his son. And just before the speech, producers in charge of the “pool” video feed from the House chamber will leaf through President Obama’s speech for something about immigration. And that’s when they’ll grab a reaction shot of Joe Wilson.

There’s also a question about who might sit next to Wilson. Last time, Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Adrian Smith (R-NE) had the ignominious distinction of sitting next to Wilson. And were thus captured in famous shot of Wilson heckling Mr. Obama. In the photo, Smith even appears slightly chagrined at Wilson. The Nebraska Republican looks as though he’s trying to lean as far away from his colleague as he can but still remain seated.

Wilson doesn’t expect his colleagues to treat him like a pariah if he tries to sit next to them. Quite the contrary, Wilson says.

“I’ve had dozens of Members say they want to sit with me,” Wilson noted.

No fools they, media-starved lawmakers know that a seat next to Wilson guarantees them a few seconds of airtime during the speech.

Joe Wilson is now a part of the fabric of a Joint Session of Congress. Almost as much as “Madame Speaker, the President of the United States!” or the scrum of reporters that clusters around lawmakers for reaction afterwards outside the House chamber.

But nearly four-and-a-half months after Wilson’s shout heard ‘round the world, the Congressman says he’s not nervous about tonight’s Joint Session.

“What occurred in September was a town-hall moment. It was passion of the moment,” Wilson said. “And it will not be repeated.”

Back in September, Wilson apologized to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. President Obama also accepted the Wilson’s mea culpa. But that didn’t stop the House from sanctioning the Congressman. Minutes after the speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told FOX that the House wouldn’t pursue any punishment. But Wilson’s Palmetto State colleague, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) pushed Pelosi to discipline Wilson.

“I thought that Governor Sanford had taken us to as low as we could go until tonight,” said Clyburn, referring to South Carolina’s embattled governor. “That was probably one of the most-insulting things I’ve ever seen.”

A few days later, the House voted to officially “disapprove” of Wilson’s conduct.

Wilson never spoke to the president about the incident. But he did chat up Mr. Obama and the First Lady last month at the White House Christmas party. Wilson says no one mentioned the episode and he talked extensively with Michelle about members of her family who lived near where his parents grew up in South Carolina.

Wilson says he doesn’t have nightmares about the heckle. And he’s not nervous about the extra attention he’ll garner tonight.

“That book is closed,” Wilson said.

But not for everyone.

The President is trending into unpopular territory in the polls. Last week’s election upset by Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-MA) is lifting the GOP out of its malaise. Many conservatives are energized by the health care fight. Just like they were back in August during the explosive town halls.

Most people didn’t approve of Wilson trashing the President of the United States during a Joint Session of Congress, the most-sacred conclave in American government. But there are many who did. They dislike the president’s policies and politics. They despise his health care plan. Some don’t like his name. Or the color of his skin. And some of them would love to goad Joe Wilson into giving Mr. Obama the business again. But Wilson’s having none of it.

“I will be civilly sitting there,” Wilson says. “Except for that one time.”

So the commentators will buzz about who sits with Wilson. The camera shutters will click when he enters the House chamber. And in the short time since last September, Wilson’s evolved from a bit player in the House to a full-throated critic of the president.

People enjoy meteoric climbs to notoriety all the time. For a host of different reasons. And had anyone told Wilson back in September that he would be as famous as he is now, he may have given them a two-word response: you lie.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

– The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais of the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.