It was the moment in the speech that you knew the pundits would quickly pounce on: “You lie!” someone shouted from the chamber on the President’s left. But this heckler, you knew immediately, could not really be on the “left.”

Turns out it was Joe Wilson, Republican congressman from South Carolina, who couldn’t contain himself when the President insisted that illegal immigrants would not be covered under his health care plan. Wilson, apparently, just didn’t believe it, and his explosive ,”You lie!”, probably gave voice to what many in the room (and in living rooms everywhere) were also thinking. 

But Wilson quickly apologized, avoiding — he must be hoping — a protracted spotlight on an action generally considered to be very bad form. (We’ll see how much fuss the morning news shows make of it all; Wilson may have his fifteen minutes of fame after all).

But what about the statement that drove Wilson to explode as he did? What about illegal immigrants and health care?

It seems that it’s a given — on both the left and the right — that these 11 million or so human beings, who are subject to the same capricious forces of bad luck and bad genes as are the rest of us, simply do not deserve to be covered because of their status as illegals. End of discussion. To raise the matter would be political suicide, even for the most Kennedy-esque of liberals.

Maybe part of the argument is that the lack of documentation would make administering health coverage for immigrants a bureaucratic nightmare. But since most undocumented workers use emergency rooms for routine illnesses and injuries, how exactly does allowing this to continue serve the larger bureaucratic goal of eliminating the waste and massive overspending now bloating the system?

Quoting a letter that Senator Ted Kennedy wrote to him a few weeks prior to his death, the President tonight raised the question of our character as a nation. What does it say about our character, he asked, when those without insurance “have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent — there is something that could make you better, but I just can’t afford it.”

What does it say about our character as a nation that health care coverage for the people who clean our toilets and take care of our children, who pick our produce and flip our burgers, is simply off the table? that it’s a political non-starter? that not even Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow can get worked up over this one?

I like and admire President Obama immensely (see previous post). Many people do not (see previous post).  I thought he gave yet another knock-out speech tonight. His closing appeal to our better natures, drawing on the life and legacy of Senator Kennedy, was rhetorically brilliant. And it was moving.

But if this whole debate does come down to our national character, and I believe it does, then who are we and what have we become when it’s the heckler — and not the critically important issue he highlighted — that gets all the attention.