BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week’s joint session of Congress was notable for the presence of emotion at the podium.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie —
[APPLAUSE/CHEERS] plain and simple.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was also notable for the absence of civility from the floor.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This too is false. The reforms —
[AUDIENCE HUBBUB] the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.
REP. JOE WILSON: You lie!
[SHOUTS FROM AUDIENCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, there are other democracies where leader heckling is almost de rigueur. The British Parliamentary system seems to lend itself to a certain churlishness.
PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: education over 10 years — it couldn't have happened under a Liberal or Conservative government.
[AUDIENCE HUBBUB/GROANS AND JEERING]
NICK CLEGG: And Speaker, there comes a point when stubbornness isn't leadership. It’s stupidity.
[AUDIENCE HUBBUB/JEERING] Well, at least I say it to his face.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Question Time, when members of Parliament have at their prime minister, is a hallowed tradition. America has its traditions, too. Fred Beuttler, deputy historian for the United States House of Representatives, says having the president address a joint session of Congress was actually made an American institution by a 20th century president.
FRED BEUTTLER: Woodrow Wilson, he was a student of Congress, and what he wanted to do by addressing Congress was to lay out his legislative program and really take the agenda away from the legislative branch. He actually speaks nine times within two years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, before you came on, we played a little clip from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown getting rudely insulted during
[LAUGHTER] the Parliament’s traditional Question Time. Now, Americans generally don't savage their chiefs of state in the halls of Congress.
FRED BEUTTLER: There is some sort of murmuring during the Reagan administration. I don't believe there is during Bush, Senior. There starts, though, with Bill Clinton’s health care issue, there was some snickering and some murmurs of dissent, so that was much more vocal back in 1993. But it’s usually 20 to 30 members kind of expressing that murmur, rather than any single individual.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've heard rumbles all along, but this outburst by Congressman Wilson seems to be unprecedented?
FRED BEUTTLER: By a single, individual, identifiable member.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you make of this “you lie” from the floor? Is it a blip? Is it a sign of the Apocalypse? You said that [LAUGHS] registering disapproval during these addresses has grown since Bill Clinton. From a historical perspective, what do you make of this?
FRED BEUTTLER: Well, possibly a good analogy would be to what happens when there’s a similar kind of outburst on the House floor when we're in regular session. The individual’s words will be what’s called “taken down,” basically stricken from the record. And usually what happens after that is most of the members realize that a line had been crossed, and there gets to be afterwards quite a while of a much more civil and much more careful environment, at least that I notice in the immediate aftermath. Looking in the future, I would imagine that next time Mr. Obama speaks I'm sure it would be quite civil and everybody will be on his best behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fred, thank you very much.
FRED BEUTTLER: Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fred Beuttler is the deputy historian for the U.S. House of Representatives. Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. He says that despite what most of us saw on TV during the joint session of Congress, really you had to be there.
DANA MILBANK: I go out and cover the scene every day here in Washington, and often it’s a pretty dreary or dull scene, but every now and then something just explodes in front of you and it’s almost like an out of body experience. And you say, did that man who I'm looking down on, you know, 15 feet away from me, did he actually just shout, “You lie!” [LAUGHS] at the President of the United States, who’s standing over there? You got to see the Republicans were waving copies of their alternative proposal at Obama, some Democrats cheering for Obama, you know, putting the V for victory sign, one fellow pumping his fist in the air and then at one point opening his fist, which unfortunately seemed to resemble a fascist salute, which I doubt that [LAUGHS] he intended. You hear mutterings and cries of, shame, or booing or hissing that you probably don't pick up on television
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No.
DANA MILBANK: because the microphones are not with each individual member, and that’s probably a good thing [LAUGHS] because it would be pretty noisy. As it happened, I was on that side where Mr. Wilson had his outburst, so I could watch him playing with his BlackBerry and puffing out his cheeks. He knew he'd stepped in it right away [LAUGHS], so he spent the next half an hour in some agony.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you could, what did you see and hear that was so different from other sessions of this kind?
DANA MILBANK: I think what was occurring here was sort of the culmination of what we'd seen over the summer, and basically the spilling out of raw anger into the public arena now had come finally to a sacred ritual of American democracy, the speech to the joint session of Congress. It was almost like a primal scream. I think more and more it is all about the theatrics, and what you saw last night, even though it appeared that there was rapt silence in the chamber, is all kinds of people thumbing their BlackBerrys while the tribute was being made to Ted Kennedy, fidgeting, getting up and leaving early. Charitably you would call it informality, but I think more likely that there has been a gradual erosion in respect paid not to the president but to the office of the presidency, and I think, you know, of the 15 years I've been covering politics in this town, that was certainly the lowest I'd seen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You referred in your column to the dignified nature of presidential addresses to joint congressional sessions, traditionally. You know, there was some hand wringing a few years back that Fox News, which has a conscious talk radio sensibility, was setting the tone for political discourse in the media post 9/11, but it also seems like over time that tone has saturated Washington.
DANA MILBANK: I think it has. I don't know if it’s necessarily Fox News or just the changing media culture. There’s really no limit on what you can say, and it does seem to have bled over into our national politics. That doesn't mean it’s caused by the media culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But something seems to be defining civility down.
DANA MILBANK: It seems like each time we reach a new low, something else has to replace it that’s even more shocking. So I suspect this is not the last time somebody heckles the president during a speech to a joint session.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dana, thank you very much.
DANA MILBANK: My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.