Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Time for Courtesy

I've never claimed to be the most religious person around, but I did learn a few things in Sunday school when I was growing up.

One of the things I learned was that the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that "[f]or everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."

When you read that passage in the Bible, you will see that it goes on to mention many seemingly opposing things, each of which has its own appropriate season — birth and death, a time to plant and a time to reap, a time to rejoice and a time to mourn, etc.

Many people were first exposed to this passage through the songwriting of Pete Seeger, who adapted it into the lyrics of his song "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Nowhere — in either the song or the biblical passage — have I seen it stated that God — or whatever higher power one credits with creating the universe — ever ordained a "season" for a politician to accuse a president of lying while that president was giving a speech to a joint session of Congress.

Now, there have been many presidents in my life who were accused of not being truthful with the American people.

But I don't recall any members of Congress accusing Lyndon Johnson of lying about Vietnam while he was giving a speech.

And I don't remember anyone accusing Richard Nixon of lying about Watergate while he was giving a speech. (He did famously protest, during a press conference, that he was "not a crook," but that wasn't the same thing nor was it the same setting.) No one accused him of lying even when he stood before Congress in early 1974 and urged an end to the Watergate investigation, proclaiming that "one year of Watergate is enough!"

Many Republicans in Congress accused Bill Clinton of not being truthful — in fact, that is what his impeachment was really about, not whether he had been faithful to his wife — but those Republicans held their tongues in check while he spoke to joint sessions of Congress.

Last night was a first, as nearly as I can tell. Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina heckled Barack Obama during his speech on health care reform before a joint session of Congress, accusing him of lying to the American people.

There is a time and a place to make such accusations — a "season," the Bible calls it. Wilson's outburst came at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

I'm not saying that Wilson isn't free to believe that Obama is not being truthful on this or any other issue. In America, you can believe whatever you want to believe, even if others regard it as absolute nonsense.

But both tradition and common courtesy dictate that you aren't free to express such thoughts while the president is giving a speech. There are limits to freedom of speech.

As I have mentioned here before, my pastor writes a blog. He explains in his blog why he did not watch last night's speech live, but he did see (presumably on the internet) clips in which Wilson yelled "You lie!" during Obama's speech.

He gave Wilson credit for apologizing to Obama. But he was adamant that Wilson should apologize to the American people because "his behavior besmirches us all."

As anyone who has read my blog entries knows, I don't always agree with Obama. But, as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said, "We can disagree without being disagreeable."

Put it another way:

I am reminded today of Sen. Seab Cooley, a fictional politician (from Wilson's state) in Allen Drury's series of political novels who opposed the president's pick for secretary of state in the novel "Advise and Consent." When asked (in the film version) why he was applauding a speech the president had just given on that topic, Cooley replied, "I can afford to be charitable, sir."

Wilson, too, can afford to be charitable. But neither he nor anyone else can afford to be discourteous.

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