Let's face it, whether you are conservative, moderate, or liberal, Democrat or Republican, if you are rational and fair, you should agree: Congressman Joe Wilson was rude, obnoxious, and offensive when he shouted out at President Barack Obama during Wednesday night's speech before a joint session of Congress, "You lie."
He was also wrong.
Even if President Obama's claim was not true that his health care programs excluded illegal aliens, that does not make it a "lie." Lying requires intentional deception -- not accidental or careless falsehoods. "To lie is to state something that one knows to be false," according to Wikipedia. Lying is a "false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive, an intentional falsehood," according to Dictionary.com.
I tested this commonly understood definition of "lie" vs. a "false statement" on my expert on the subject, my 11 year-old son, Josh.
"Josh, what's a lie?" I asked.
"It's when I tell you I did my homework when I didn't do my homework," he said.
"But suppose you thought you had done your homework, because you had done your reading but had forgotten that you hadn't done your math. Would that be a lie -- or a mistake?" I asked Josh.
"A mistake," said Josh.
"So what's the difference between a lie and a mistake?" I asked Josh.
"I never lie to you, dad -- only make mistakes."
End of discussion. For Josh at least.
Did Rep. Wilson have a shred of evidence that President Obama knew the following statement on Wednesday night was false when he said it? The answer is no.
Here is the president's statement:
"There are those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally."
There is no evidence that Mr. Obama believed this statement to be untrue -- which would make it a lie.
However, the irony is that Rep. Wilson would have been reasonable in saying (after the speech -- not shouting from the floor) that Mr. Obama's statement on Wednesday night's speech was not entirely accurate or, at least, was ambiguous or incomplete.
As Declan McCullagh wrote on CBSNews.com, if Mr. Obama were referring to the only comprehensive health care bill that has yet passed the Congress -- House Bill H.R. 3200 -- then his statement could reasonably be said to be not entirely accurate.
Liberal defenders of Mr. Obama, such as MSNBC TV host Keith Olbermann, the next night attempted to trump Mr. Wilson's charge by quoting Section 246 from H.R. 3200:
"NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS: Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States."
Mr. Olbermann emphasized the ALL CAPS header in his commentary. But he failed to point out the limit of the provision -- referring only to "affordability credits."
As CBS blogger McCullagh pointed out, according to an August 25 report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), there is nothing in H.R. 3200 that specifically excludes illegal aliens from being allowed to purchase private or public insurance on the Health Insurance Exchange. And the CRS concluded that the bill's individual mandate to have health insurance (with tax penalties for non-compliance) would apply to both legal U.S. residents as well as illegal aliens.
Moreover, as McCullagh and others have pointed out, Nevada Republican Congressman Dean Heller tried to amend H.R. 3200 in the House Ways and Means Committee by explicitly requiring whoever is eligible under the legislation to prove they are legal U.S. residents when they seek to participate or receive benefits. But that amendment was defeated by the Democrats in a party-line vote. A reasonable inference can be drawn that at least the House Democrats who voted against this amendment did not intend to provide serious enforcement to prevent illegal aliens from benefiting from the legislation.
But the fact is, Mr. Obama did not refer to H.R. 3200 when he made his statement. He only referenced "our reform efforts" -- whatever that means -- which could mean what he intended to support in the future, not any specific bill. That may be ambiguous -- but it cannot fairly be labeled a "lie" without any evidence of his contrary plans in the future.
By the way, my personal opinion on the issue of whether illegal aliens should or should not be included in the bill: It's a silly argument. Politically, no bill can pass without an explicit exclusion of illegal immigrants, especially now. That's a fact, whether you agree or not.
Moreover, it's beside the point. What public hospital emergency room doctor and nurse, dealing with a person suffering potentially fatal injuries, will refuse to help and say, "Show me your birth certificate or Green Card or you can just go off and die?"
That doesn't happen now -- which is why we are all subsidizing with our taxes public hospital ER rooms, including treating illegal aliens who are in extremis -- and won't happen if we pass national health care. That is another stubborn fact, like it or not.
On fellow Democrats and liberals being too outraged and or sanctimonious about Mr. Wilson's misuse of the word "lie," my humble advice: Beware of opening yourself to the charge of practicing a double standard.
Of course there is a difference between shouting the words "you lie" during a presidential speech in a joint session of Congress vs. misusing it unjustifiably outside of the halls of Congress. But the fact is, some Democrats, in Congress and on the left blogosphere, in my opinion, did misuse the "L" word to describe George W. Bush over and over again. Some members of Congress booed President Bush in 2005 during his State of the Union speech -- not as bad as shouting out "you lie" but still bad. And other responsible Democratic leaders remained, with few exceptions, silent in the face of all these examples -- and by their silence, arguably, were complicit.
For example, if you Google the name "George Bush" and the word "lie," you will get 2,540,000 hits -- and, it's a safe bet, most of those hits came from certain Democrats who didn't make the distinction between a knowing, intentional deception (a "lie") and an unwitting or careless falsehood.
For example, we now know that President George Bush was wrong when he said that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, which was the primary basis for the preemptive invasion of Iraq. The question is, did he know at the time he said it, repeatedly, that there were, in fact, no WMD? If he did, that would be a lie. If he did not, it would not -- it would be a false statement.
There is objective evidence that he did not -- that he had good reason to believe there were WMD because so did President Bill Clinton, his administration, and much of the intelligence community in this country and among our European allies.
Yet many Democrats repeated over and over that former President Bush was a "liar" and continue to do so to this day. They failed to make the same distinction as did Mr. Wilson: the difference between intentional vs. non-intentional deception.
Whenever I would point out that I did not believe George Bush was a liar based on the many others who believed there were WMD (full disclosure -- we were friends at Yale College and remain friends to this day and I believe him to be sincere), my emails would fill up with the worst and vilest hate from people who called themselves liberals.
So, my fellow Democrats, before getting too righteous in denouncing Mr. Wilson, remember the ancient and wise saying from the Good Book (Galatians VI) and be humble:
As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics is Destroying America."