Wilson debate reopens deep S.C. wounds

Congressman's shout of 'You lie!' fuels a controversy

jrosen@mcclatchydc.comSeptember 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson - at first sorry for his "You lie!" yell at President Barack Obama as he addressed Congress, but defiant since - is being taken up as a hero by conservative activists.

Wilson is being invited to speak in other states and raking in campaign contributions from across the country - almost $2 million since his now-famous shout.

At a large anti-Obama rally outside the U.S. Capitol three days after Wilson's outburst, thousands cheered when a speaker exclaimed, "I thank God for Congressman Wilson!"

Wilson's newfound prominence on the national political scene is being driven, in part, by the anger of another S.C. politician, U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat.

Clyburn, with other black lawmakers, compelled Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call a vote reprimanding Wilson that she didn't feel was necessary.

Speaking with an influential liberal columnist, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Clyburn also made incendiary charges about Wilson.

Together, the two prominent S.C. politicians are helping to rip open the country's most festering wound - race - only 10 months after the election of Obama, a self-styled postracial black president who wants no part of that centuries-old argument.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a son of the South and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, poured salt on the wound by accusing Wilson of racism for his shout at Obama the evening of Sept. 9 on live, prime-time television.

"I think it's based on racism," Carter said Tuesday when asked about Wilson's outburst during a town hall meeting in Atlanta. "There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."

Carter later tied Wilson's shout-out to anti-Obama rallies in Washington and town hall meetings around the country.

"I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way," Carter told NBC News. But, he added, "That racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people - not just in the South, but around the country - that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

The day after his outburst, Wilson was asked whether it was tied to Obama's race.

"No, no," he told McClatchy Newspapers. "I respect the president."

But in response to Carter's comments, Wilson was less conciliatory.

"Congressman Wilson believes that President Carter's remarks are a distraction from the task at hand, which is a respectful debate over health-insurance reform and working to bring jobs to our communities," said Ryan Murphy, a Wilson spokesman.

In videos on his campaign Web site - joewilsonforcongress.com - Wilson says he's "under attack by liberals" but vows he "will not be muzzled."

Obama has resisted getting drawn into any new racial dispute.

The president said that he had accepted Wilson's apology, and that it was time to move on. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "The president does not believe the (broader) criticism comes based on the color of his skin."

RACE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES

In South Carolina, however, the specter of racially tinged politics still looms.

The National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of about 200 black publishers, moved its planned January 2010 convention from Charleston to Charlotte, N.C., after Wilson's yell.

"We are asking people not to go to South Carolina and to make sure we do not spend our hard-earned money in a place where we are not wanted," Danny Bakewell, the association's chairman, told McClatchy Newspapers.

"Joe Wilson has confirmed that there are forces in South Carolina who have deep-seated racist feelings toward African-Americans," Bakewell said.

Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, made pointed remarks about Wilson to Dowd. In two columns, she used the Columbia Democrat's comments to argue Wilson was racially motivated.

In a column published Wednesday, Clyburn told Dowd that over the years he had tried to "look past" things that bothered him about Wilson.

Clyburn cited Wilson's 1999 vote against removing the Confederate flag from atop the Capitol dome - Wilson was one of only seven state senators to oppose the move.

Clyburn also cited the Lexington County Republican's "membership in some groups that call into question his feelings about the whole notion of white supremacy."

Pressed about that claim Wednesday, Clyburn declined to repeat it in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers.

Asked to name the groups he'd been referring to in the Dowd interview, Clyburn responded: "I have said that over time that he became affiliated with groups. I didn't say 'member,' I said that he was affiliated with these groups."

Wilson's campaign Web site lists the Sons of Confederate Veterans as among numerous groups to which he belongs. The Southern Poverty Law Center does not include the SCV among the "hate groups" it tracks, though a center analyst said about 2,000 SCV members are white supremacists.

Clyburn also said Wilson made "very vile comments" in December 2003 when a Los Angeles woman, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, said she was the biracial daughter of Strom Thurmond, born out of wedlock to the late senator and a black 16-year-old maid in his household.

Wilson, a page for Thurmond early in his political career, said then that the former governor and 1948 segregationist presidential candidate was a personal hero. He called Washington-Williams' claim "a smear on the image that (Thurmond) has as a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina."

In a subsequent bow to historical accuracy, Washington-Williams' name was added to the list of Thurmond's children on a monument to him on the S.C. State House grounds.

Clyburn also said he was furious over Wilson's decision to hold a town hall meeting last month, attended by hundreds from Wilson's majority-white district, at Keenan High School, whose student body isvirtually all black.

Keenan is in Clyburn's district, and his three daughters attended high school there. Clyburn said neither he nor numerous other colleagues he has asked - Democrats and Republicans - could recall another instance of a lawmaker having such a large meeting with constituents in the district of another congressman, especially one from the opposite party.

"It was absolutely in my face," Clyburn said.

Fred Beuttler, U.S. House deputy historian, told McClatchy Newspapers such a move was "very rare, if in fact it has ever happened before."

Wilson told McClatchy: "The decision to move the town hall to Keenan High School was a last-minute change in order to accommodate an anticipated larger crowd."

Wilson aides said the event's original location, Midlands Technical College/Northeast, was too small for his town hall meeting.

Clyburn, though, ticked off three nearby high schools in Wilson's district that could have hosted the gathering: Richland Northeast, Ridgeview and Blythewood.

For his part, Wilson said he was surprised by Clyburn's leading role in getting House Democrats, with seven Republicans, to pass a "resolution of disapproval" against him Tuesday.

Wilson told Roll Call, a widely read political newspaper in Washington, that he and Clyburn had been on friendly terms.

As evidence, Wilson said he'd voted in 1998 for Mignon Clyburn, one of the congressman's three daughters, to sit on the S.C. Public Service Commission.

But, on May 6, 1998, Wilson broke with most fellow state senators, including some Republicans, and opposed Mignon Clyburn, backing another candidate who received four votes.

S.C. Rep. Leon Howard, a Columbia Democrat and former head of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Wilson voted time and again against African-American candidates for a range of state posts.

Howard and Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said even after Wilson left the General Assembly for Washington, he made calls to Republican legislators in Columbia to try to block at least one black woman from becoming a judge.

"He interfered with us electing black judges even when he was in Congress," Howard said. "During the time he was in the General Assembly, he never or rarely voted for an African-American for anything."

State Sen. David Thomas, a Greenville Republican, said he and Wilson became close friends while their desks were next to each other during the congressman's tenure in the state Senate.

"I know him like he's my brother," Thomas said. "He is absolutely not a racist. He would never say a bad word about anybody."

Ronald Walters, director of the University of Maryland's African-American Leadership Institute, said he'd been on eight black radio stations around the country in recent days, and the Wilson episode dominated discussion among listeners.

Carter's assertions about Wilson's outburst seem obvious to African-Americans, Walters said.

"THERE ISN'T ANY QUESTION IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY THAT THIS IS A RACIALLY MOTIVATED INCIDENT," WALTERS SAID. "MANY THINGS IN TERMS OF WILSON'S BACKGROUND AND PAST STATEMENTS EQUIP HIM TO HAVE YELLED THAT WITH A RACIAL MEANING."TARNISHING PROGRESS

From his professor's desk at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, Walter Edgar is dismayed by all the racial heat around the Wilson episode.

Edgar, author of a definitive history of South Carolina and head of USC's Institute for Southern Studies, said the state has made great strides toward binding its racial wounds in recent years.

Edgar points to election returns last November, when 26 percent of white South Carolinians voted for Obama - a larger share than in the other Deep South states of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

The professor also noted that two years ago, a General Assembly dominated by white, male Republicans put a black man, Donald Beatty, on the S.C. Supreme Court.

"We in South Carolina have come a long way," Edgar said. "This isn't a perfect world, but things have changed."

Edgar fears the whole Wilson "You lie!" fiasco is a step backward for the state.

"This is very unfortunate for South Carolina," he said. "It is not helpful for the state to be in the national and even international spotlight.

"Coming on the heels of the (Gov. Mark) Sanford soap opera, this does not present the state in a positive light."

Rosen covers Washington for McClatchy Newspapers in South Carolina.

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