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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, this week.


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 pig." 

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 pig!


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.


It 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.


In 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.


If 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 outrage. 


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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