When the House of Representatives made the unusual move to pass a "resolution of disapproval" against Joe Wilson after his outburst during the president's speech on health care, it was House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina who led the charge. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Allison Samuels. Excerpts:
Why were you so impassioned during the debate over whether to admonish Wilson?
If we are not going to respect the president of the United States, then why would we respect anyone else? If there is no respect for the top office in the country, then all is lost, if you ask me. It's like the poem from the play A Raisin in the Sun—do you let a sore just fester and run? No. You have to stop it from infecting the entire body.
You said that comments like Wilson's are attempts to delegitimize Obama's presidency. How so?
When you see people pushing the idea that he wasn't born here or asking whether he's Muslim…it becomes clear that they're just searching for reasons and ways to undermine the president. We can say that it's not about the color of his skin, but we all know that has some part of it. I've not seen any other president treated like this.
What did you think of former president Carter's comments?
I only wished that he would have said "significant numbers" of people are motivated by racist views as opposed to "an overwhelming number." I think significant is closer to the reality. But that said, I know that Jimmy Carter knows what he's talking about. He hears what the people are saying at the Plains Baptist church every Sunday.
But the White House has said that none of this is about race.
The conversation about race is not something Obama can really get involved in. He can't get bogged down in that debate, nor should he. It's not in his best interest.
Will a health-care bill be passed?
A health bill will pass in some form soon. You will see significant progress. But it will be gradual just like the civil-rights bills in the '60s. We didn't get all we wanted right away. It took some years. But we started at the beginning and compromised and worked it out until it was done. This is what we have to do about health care.