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September 15, 2008
‘Lipstick on a Pig’:
Down With Fake Outrage
Fake outrage – the constant need for politicians, pundits and others to
publicly take umbrage, or at least pretend to – has been with us for
years. But it may have hit a new low, and a new level of prominence,
Speaking to supporters in Virginia last Monday, Barack Obama broke out a
variation on a line he’d been using throughout the campaign. “John
McCain says he’s about change, too,” Obama said, “except for economic
policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy
and Karl Rove-style politics. That’s just calling the same thing
something different – you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a
The McCain campaign reacted by taking umbrage. And outrage. Lots of it,
all of it pretend. Obama, they explained, had obviously been calling
Sarah Palin – who made a lipstick joke in her convention address – a
Especially vigilant was former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, the newly
installed leader of the campaign’s “Palin Truth Squad” – an attempt to
turn any questioning or criticism of the vice-presidential nominee into
a sexist, elitist assault from the far left. Swift told a conference
call of reporters about the “disgusting comments” and demanded an
immediate apology. Meanwhile, this laughable story dominated the news
cycle for virtually the entire week.
is beyond clear that this was not what Obama meant. He clearly was not
talking about Palin at the time and hadn’t even mentioned her in that
paragraph of the speech. As anyone with any level of language
comprehension would know, he was specifically referring to a collection
of views held by John McCain, while using a colloquialism that’s
actually fairly common.
Obama had, in fact, used the phrase numerous times long before Palin's
selection – and McCain himself used it too, to refer to Hillary
Clinton's health care plan during the primaries. And, as blogger David
Mills pointed out, Torie Clarke, a former Senate press secretary for
McCain who later worked in the Bush White House, wrote a book in 2006
about her experiences in the “no spin era.” The book’s title? You
guessed it, Lipstick on a Pig.
If Obama had said "a pit bull with lipstick," then it would've been a
shot at Palin. But he didn't, so it wasn't. To argue that he was calling
Palin a pig requires a level of intellectual dishonesty far beyond even
the low standard generally held in partisan politics. But McCain, and
much of his campaign apparatus, saw nothing wrong with doing so.
a way, this is nothing new. Cable news anchors, after all, for years
have been teasing segments by telling their audience “you’ll be outraged
by our next story.” Politicians of both parties have often done the
same, for the simple reason that people love to be outraged. And anyone
flogging an “outrage” story, you can bet 95 percent of the time, isn’t
actually outraged, but rather thrilled that they can use the “outrage”
to draw attention/ratings/money.
But usually, there’s a scintilla of truth behind the outrageous
situation. In this case, there was not: McCain, and everyone working for
him, knows that Barack Obama did not call Sarah Palin a pig, but decided
to pretend he did anyway.
any good came out of this unfortunate episode, it was that a major
politician, Obama, actually specifically denounced "fake outrage." I'd
like to see him take it one step further, and discuss how people not
having health care is an outrage, and government-approved torture is an
outrage. An out-of-context quote about a pig? Not so much of an
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