By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson and his outburst during our president’s address to a joint session of Congress last week. When he screamed, “You lie!” in the otherwise silent House chamber, Wilson brought the insanity of this summer’s town meetings on health care reform into the most hallowed hall of our great republic and simultaneously became the most famous heckler in America. It’s not the ideal way for a Republican member of Congress to become a household name, but it’s better than Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and his “wide stance” in a Minneapolis airport men’s room.
In the past week, any of a number of my fellow columnists have taken on this subject; decrying the death of civility while comparing Joe Wilson’s behavior to Serena Williams’ profanity-laced tirade directed at a U.S. Open referee or Kanye West’s interrupting Taylor Swift’s Video Music Awards acceptance speech.
For me, those comparisons miss the mark because unlike those two black entertainers, Joe Wilson belongs to a demographic (middle-aged southern white guys who are members of Congress) known for good manners. A much better example to look to is that of former professional golfer Fuzzy Zoeller and the comments he made about then soon-to-be-first-time-Masters-champion Tiger Woods at Augusta National Golf Club one Sunday back in 1997.
At the time, Zoeller was a popular, well-liked PGA tour pro who had been the 1979 Masters champion. Woods was on his way to his first major championship with a 12-stroke margin of victory over a field that really didn’t challenge him that weekend. Tiger had not yet come to dominate professional golf, but it was generally accepted that it was just a matter of time before he would. In other words, a young, untested black guy was coming into this venerable bastion of southern whiteness and was poised to take it over (sound familiar?). Needless to say, not everybody was comfortable with the idea.
That’s when Zoeller, who had finished his round of golf and had begun enjoying some rounds of cocktails, made 18 seconds of commentary that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Speaking to a TV reporter, he said, “That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken (at the champions dinner) next year … or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.” Then Zoeller sauntered off to refresh his mint julep or whatever the hell they drink.
In the days and weeks that followed, the community of PGA tour professionals (at least the ones who would comment publicly) unanimously condemned Fuzzy’s comments, though most defended him as a good guy. More importantly, Zoeller’s main sponsor, Kmart, canceled his endorsement deal saying, “Regardless of the context, (the comments) are contrary to Kmart’s long-standing policies that insure our words and deeds are without bias.” For his part, Fuzzy Zoeller dropped out of a tournament he had played in for more than 20 consecutive years because the controversy was a distraction from the business of playing golf.
Compare that response to Joe Wilson’s Republican colleagues and the real problem begins to emerge. Initially, they tried the “moral equivalence” argument by saying that Democrats had hissed and booed President Bush when he addressed a joint session and no apologies were made. Now they’re saying Wilson’s calling White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel to apologize to President Obama is enough contrition and that he doesn’t need to make an additional apology from the House floor. I say if Fuzzy Zoeller had enough respect for a PGA golf course not to tee it up while he was the center of controversy, Joe Wilson should have the same respect for the House chamber and should only enter it in order to apologize to that august body for his unprecedented breach of decorum. Emboldened by this lack of leadership in his party, Joe Wilson has flatly refused to make such an apology.
Throughout the last seven days, the chronicles of South Carolina Joe have actually made me more hopeful, not less hopeful, for the future of our government because despite the fact that 25 percent of the people surveyed in a recent Gallup poll approve of Wilson’s behavior (with 6 percent claiming to be “thrilled” about it), almost 70 percent disapprove. And even though Wilson has raised some $700,000 in campaign contributions in the last week, his likely opponent has doubled that total and raised almost $1.5 million, showing that the people of South Carolina are voting with their dollars over a year before they cast their ballots, and sending their soon-to-be-ex-congressman the message that the House Republican “leadership” doesn’t have the courage to send: you were wrong.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who would love to see a Zoeller/Woods/Wilson/Obama foursome play a round at Congressional Country Club. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.