Joe Wilson And The Half Apology

One of the ironies of the CIA leak case was the way the White House half apologized for the president's 2003 State of the Union address claiming that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa. After former Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote his scathing op-ed in which he claimed that he had been dispatched to the African country of Niger to investigate such claims--and found them lacking--the White House did something bizarre. They could have said that Wilson was mistaken and that the White House stood by those claims. Indeed, British intelligence never backed off of them. Or they could have said that Wilson was right, thanked him for his government service and vowed to listen more closely. Instead they chose a course that was the worst of all worlds, they conceded that the line should not have been in the State of the Union speech, not because it wasn't true, but because it had not been proven true enough to merit inclusion in the president's most important speech. White House and other administration officials trashed Wilson privately and, famously, outed his wife,  a CIA official, which launched an investigation that entangled everyone from Bob Woodward to Robert Novak to myself to the vice president.

I mention all of this because Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's speech has been followed by a similar kind of half apology. Apparently at the behest of the GOP leadership, he called Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, and offered an apology for his outburst. Now, he's saying he won't apologize any more and won't be muzzled. I don't know if the Democrats gain from belaboring this issue by trying to compel Wilson to apologize on the House floor or face a reprimand, but it does leave Wilson in the intellectually odd spot of having to say why he can only say I'm sorry once. Obviously, the longer he resists the more he becomes a martyr to those who loved his outburst and thought he shouldn't have apologized in the first place. I'm not sure where this ends but the story of the first Joe Wilson and the White House's lame half-apology shows that these things can have unintended consequences.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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