Seeking committee gavel, Joe Wilson looks to move on from ‘You lie’

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouts out "You lie" during President Barack Obama's address to a Joint Session of Congress concerning healthcare September 9, 2009 in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouts out "You lie" during President Barack Obama's address to a Joint Session of Congress concerning healthcare September 9, 2009 in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post

Rep. Joe Wilson, best remembered outside Washington as the guy who shouted “You lie” at President Barack Obama, is exploring a bid to be the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

It would be a chance for the South Carolina Republican to push a legislative agenda he’s been cultivating for years as a foreign policy wonk and prolific world traveler.

But it would also be a chance for Wilson to earn a title and distinction on the national stage beyond the one he now endures: As the guy who became nationally known for interrupting Obama as the president was addressing a joint session of Congress about health care, taking issue the commander-in-chief’s claims that undocumented immigrants would not receive insurance under the new law.

The congressman is still widely known solely for that act, and the reputation even follows him back home. In April 2017, Democratic constituents chanted “You lie” in a taunting slogan during a town hall event. This year, his Democratic challengers are reminding voters of the incident on the campaign trail, even if it’s just to refer to their Republican opponent as “Joe ‘You lie’ Wilson.”

Wilson told McClatchy the episode continues to come up when he travels the country. He said he received kind words and thanks at recent a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas and during a campaign stop in upstate New York on behalf of incumbent Republican Rep. Tom Reed.

Reed told McClatchy he wanted Wilson to come to his district not so he could introduce donors to the famous Obama agitator, but so they might hear how Congress is meeting various global challenges.

Yet Wilson conceded there have been political advantages to the outburst.

“I received nearly half a million letters indicating (people) were supportive, understanding, too, that I apologized that evening for the interruption,” Wilson recalled. “My constituents, how did they respond? My margin of victory increased (between 2008 and 2010). People understand that I was, that I am, very respectful of the office of the president, but I also knew the issues.”

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., who was elected to Congress in a special election last summer, said Wilson had nothing to apologize for.

“Joe follows his heart,” Norman said. “That outburst was following his heart.”

Still, Wilson is eager to be defined by other career highlights, and on Capitol Hill, there appears to be some willingness to help facilitate that.

Some members on the House Republican Steering Committee — a mix of leadership and rank-and-file lawmakers who recommend committee chairmanships — are urging Wilson to pursue the Foreign Affairs gavel after current Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., retires.

Though Wilson said his first priority is winning re-election and helping his party keep its majority, a senior aide to a member of the Steering Committee told McClatchy that Wilson’s office has been “aggressively” pursuing the post on its boss’s behalf.

Democrats also aren’t balking at the concept of the fifth most senior committee member climbing up the ranks.

Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a senior committee Democrat who only became acquainted with Wilson after the 2009 incident, called Wilson “a gentleman” and “a very civil and considerate colleague.”

In political circles, Wilson is not known as a bomb thrower, but as courtly, enthusiastic, eccentric and above all likable. He’s famous for giving out campaign keychains, showing off fading family photos covered in protective plastic and inviting members to meet with any foreign dignitary he happens to be hosting at any given time.

He’s known for being a prolific collector — some might say hoarder — of ephemera. Every surface area and wall space of his congressional office is accounted for. Currently on display are a paper name tag from a Heritage Foundation event, a local award for being a “Super Health Hero,” Bulgaria’s highest civilian medal commemorating Wilson’s friendship and the diploma from his kindergarten graduation in 1953.

Whether this is enough to catapult Wilson to the chairmanship of Foreign Affairs — or ranking member, if Republicans lose control of the House — is uncertain.

His disinclination to embrace the media spotlight might be the reason people still only know Wilson for an incident that happened nine years ago. Compare him with Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas. The current chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee is also interested in the Foreign Affairs slot, and has developed more of a national following by leveraging his telegenic personality with rumors that he might be nominated for administration postings

But Republicans might appreciate Wilson as a staunch defender of President Donald Trump, who he calls “inspiring” and “underestimated” by the international community, though the two men seem to share different world views.

Wilson told McClatchy he believes in building bridges and friendships between the U.S. and other countries, and sees international relationships as a means of fostering domestic economic opportunities, including those in South Carolina. In contrast, Trump’s foreign policy doctrine relies on putting America’s interests first.

Ultimately, if Wilson wants to win the chairmanship, he should stress his industry credentials, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“He is within a handful of members of the House of Representatives that the Pentagon will know and people throughout the world will know,” said Graham, whose portfolio also includes foreign policy and military affairs. “This would be a good match of the man and the moment.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Rep. Ralph Norman.