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Commentary: Why we don't heckle the president

  • Story Highlights
  • John Feehery: In Britain, prime minister is questioned rudely
  • He says the U.S. president occupies a different role
  • He says heckling the president is showing disrespect to the office
  • Feehery: Joe Wilson is a very nice guy who crossed an invisible line
By John Feehery
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: John Feehery worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans in Congress. He is president of Feehery Group, a Washington-based advocacy firm that has represented clients that include News Corp., Ford Motor Co. and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He formerly was a government relations executive vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America.

John Feehery says heckling the president is showing disrespect for the office.

John Feehery says heckling the president is showing disrespect for the office.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When I worked in the House of Representatives in the mid-'90s, Congressional Republicans grew enamored of the idea of replicating the tradition of "Question Time" that was popular in the British House of Commons.

C-SPAN had just started broadcasting "Question Time," where the British prime minister thrusts and parries with colleagues on the other side of the aisle, while hoping for supportive statements from those on his side of the aisle.

It seemed like a lot of fun, most of all because the party out of power could show their disdain for the government's leader in no uncertain terms, and best of all, face to face.

The proposal to do an American-style question time, with Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as the principal antagonists, died, mostly because the president had little interest in subjecting himself to that kind of ridicule on a weekly basis.

I thought of that episode in congressional history when I heard the immortal words of Joe Wilson, who impolitely called the president a liar Thursday evening. Unlike in the House of Commons, where the governing minister is part of the parliamentary body, in America, the president represents both the government and something more exalted.

While Congress is the first branch named in the Constitution, the president is the commander in chief, the leader of the country, and in many unspoken ways treated as a king.

We stand when the president enters the room, no matter who the president is. He has his own tune when he goes anywhere. When he gives a speech, his seal is on the lectern. The president is treated with royal respect, even though he is overtly not a royal. Ever since George Washington declined to become a king, we have established traditions that give the president all the kingly trappings.

That is why when Joe Wilson blurted out loud about the president, it was so jarring. Wilson is a very nice guy, very earnest, conscientious, hardworking and unfailingly polite. He is not one to do this sort of thing. He is not a protester, a demonstrator, a conscientious objector or a nonviolent resistor.

So when he blurted out what many other Republicans probably were thinking, he crossed an invisible but firm line of decorum on the House floor. Under House rules, you are prohibited from casting aspersions on the motivations of your colleagues. There is even a procedure for punishing those who do. You can be stripped of your right to speak for the rest of the day on the floor if your words are taken down and ruled out of order.

No such specific prohibition exists in the House for when a president is speaking because, well, it is just not done. Members understand that presidents, no matter who they are, deserve respect.

Joe Wilson understands that fact, which is why he apologized so quickly to the president's chief of staff.

When the queen addresses the British Parliament, she is accorded ritualized decorum and respect, firmly rooted in history and precedent. It is not so different here in America. In our nation's rituals, we treat the president with the respect befitting the office, no matter who the current occupant might be.

Some may question why we treat the office of the president with such respect, when sometimes our presidents in the their personal or professional lives perhaps weren't worthy of that respect.

After all, America was founded as a reaction against monarchy, we pride ourselves on our democratic impulses, and we have ably resisted the temptation to crown a king for more than 200 years. I guess it is because the office of the president is one of the unifying symbols of our country, and we place our best hopes and worst fears in the lap of the occupant, hoping that whoever resides in the Oval Office will resist partisan temptation and do the best for all of our citizens, regardless of party or philosophy.

We treat the office of president with the utmost respect because we hope that the president will return the favor.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Feehery.

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