Matthews: Was Joe Wilson Outburst 'A Race Thing?'

Chris Matthews, on Tuesday’s "Hardball," insinuated racism may have been behind Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst against President Obama, at last week’s health care speech, as he repeatedly asked his guests if they thought Wilson's exclamation was "A race thing," that represented "the old black/white attitude of the South."

In the very first segment of the show Matthews pressed Democratic Congresswoman Donna Edwards, "Do you think this is a race thing...I mean was it a racial thing on the part of Wilson? Was he expressing contempt for Barack Obama because of his heritage?" For her part Edwards insisted, "I don’t think that at all." [audio available here]

However Matthews persisted and, later in the show, got the reply he desired from the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, as seen in the following exchange:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Do you think he smacks of the old days here?

EUGENE ROBINSON, WASHINGTON POST: Who? Joe Wilson?

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

ROBINSON: Yeah. I do...

MATTHEWS: Do you think so? That, that-

ROBINSON: That’s my opinion, that’s my opinion.

MATTHEWS: That he’s, he’s got the old black/white attitude of the South?

ROBINSON: Well he’s on, you know he has a history.

MATTHEWS: Let’s call it the old one because-

ROBINSON: He has, he has, he has a history that’s kind of New South/Old South. And, and, and, in the sense that he has-

MATTHEWS: Was he a Confederate flag guy?

ROBINSON: Hmm?

MATTHEWS: Is he a Confederate flag guy?

ROBINSON: He, basically. I mean he has, he has been very, said very nice things about die-hard Confederate flag advocates, including one who is the state’s leading die-hard segregationist to this day. So, and you know he, he has, now he hasn’t taken those positions. But he has, you know, he’s, he hasn’t renounced that era of South Carolina politics...

Matthews also called Wilson a "Johnny Reb," and agreed with the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd that Wilson was "sub-audibly," hurling a racial epithet: 

MATTHEWS: This is one time I’m taking a stand. I think Jim Clyburn, whoever else is in there, I think Steny Hoyer gave a beautiful presentation today, by the way, he was, his finest hour today, Steny Hoyer, as a leader of that caucus. And I think these members, maybe, not just the African-American members smelled something here, that smacked of the old days and as Maureen Dowd said in the New York Times. She sort of heard the word, almost sub-audibly, that word we don’t like.

The following exchanges were aired on the September 15 edition of "Hardball":

CHRIS MATTHEWS: U.S. Congresswoman Donna Edwards is from Maryland, she's a Democrat. Congresswoman, why is it important for the House to vote disapproval of the conduct of Congressman Joe Wilson?

REP. DONNA EDWARDS: I think it's really important to our institution. I would have preferred that Mr. Wilson go to the floor and offer an apology to the institution and to the Office of the President, but he didn't do that. And so he really didn't leave us with much choice but to express our disapproval for his conduct before our joint session. I mean it's about our rules, it's about the process, and it's about honoring and respecting the Office of the President and the House of Representatives.

MATTHEWS: Do you think this is a race thing?

EDWARDS: I don't think it is at all. I mean I spent my time over the weekend in my district, you know, black folks, white folks, you know, across the stripes. Democrats and Republicans, who themselves expressed their disapproval and really their dismay. And so I don't think it's really about race. It's really about our institutions and the rules that govern us.

MATTHEWS: No. I think, I wasn't clear Congresswoman. I mean was it a racial thing on the part of Wilson? Was he expressing contempt for Barack Obama because of his heritage?

EDWARDS: I don't think that at all. I mean, I think there's been a vigorous debate about the policy and about health care. The problem is that, you know, while he offered a personal apology, it was actually a public offense to the institution. We just don't do that and we, we have to distinguish ourselves and, in fact, our rules are what distinguish us from other kinds of governments.

...

MATTHEWS: Do you think he smacks of the old days here?

EUGENE ROBINSON, WASHINGTON POST: Who? Joe Wilson?

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

ROBINSON: Yeah. I do...

MATTHEWS: Do you think so? That, that-

ROBINSON: That’s my opinion, that’s my opinion.

MATTHEWS: That he’s, he’s got the old black/white attitude of the South?

ROBINSON: Well he’s on, you know he has a history.

MATTHEWS: Let’s call it the old one because-

ROBINSON: He has, he has, he has a history that’s kind of New South/Old South. And, and, and, in the sense that he has-

MATTHEWS: Was he a Confederate flag guy?

ROBINSON: Hmm?

MATTHEWS: Is he a Confederate flag guy?

ROBINSON: He, basically. I mean he has, he has been very, said very nice things about die-hard Confederate flag advocates, including one who is the state’s leading die-hard segregationist to this day. So, and you know he, he has, now he hasn’t taken those positions. But he has, you know, he’s, he hasn’t renounced that era of South Carolina politics to the extent-

MATTHEWS: Melinda I’ve, I watched the floor and I didn’t see politics in Jim Clyburn’s eyes. I saw history.

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, POLITICSDAILY.COM: No, not at all. No.

MATTHEWS: A man who’s been through the civil rights fight-

HENNEBERGER: Right.

MATTHEWS: And smelled the bad stuff.

HENNEBERGER: Right. How could it be?

MATTHEWS: By the way, when I saw it, watching the floor that night, I was stunned.

HENNEBERGER: Right.

MATTHEWS: I have never heard anybody yell out to the President. There is a hush in that chamber. When Reagan came back from being shot and all the other nights I've been there, it’s a hush. It's a religious experience to be there when the President speaks. And for somebody to speak back to the President like he was his equal, in that setting, is beyond, well it’s beyond words.

HENNEBERGER: Like he was yelling at kid. I mean I felt like-

MATTHEWS: A boy.

HENNEBERGER: -like Nancy Pelosi looked. You know? And I just thought, this is truly an outrage. So I completely understand where these people who want to censure him are coming for, from. If it's a stunt, I'm not sure it's a wise stunt. That's why I don't think it's political at all because the political thing to do would be to do, take the cue from the President and just keep walking. But I really can't understand very much that, that they feel it's an outrage that can't go unchecked. Let’s take a look at that video. I’m not sure that I respect this. But let’s take a look at this. Here’s something being Twittered by Joe Wilson, the man who was rebuked today.

REP. JOE WILSON: I’m now awaiting. There’s a Democratic conference on what actions they’re going to take against me. I’m very grateful, that actually today it was reported several Democrats feel like, correctly, that we should be discussing health insurance reform and not playing politics. The President said, "Do not play politics." Obviously what’s going on is playing politics. But I am so grateful for your support. It’s been overwhelming across the nation. Thank you, God Bless you.

MATTHEWS: You know, well I do understand. I think this guy is playing You talk about stunts, I think that was a stunt. I think this guy knows what he's doing. He’s playing Johnny Reb here. He thinks it’s a good cause. He’s fighting for the cause.

HENNEBERGER: You think he planned it in advance?

MATTHEWS: I think it’s a total deliberate act of insolence and contempt for the President of the United States. I think he knew exactly what he was doing.

...

MATTHEWS: This is one time I’m taking a stand. I think Jim Clyburn, whoever else is in there, I think Steny Hoyer gave a beautiful presentation today, by the way, he was, his finest hour today, Steny Hoyer, as a leader of that caucus. And I think these members, maybe, not just the African-American members smelled something here, that smacked of the old days and as Maureen Dowd said in the New York Times. She sort of heard the word, almost sub-audibly, that word we don’t like.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.