LEBANON, Va. — Sen. John McCain played the gender card Tuesday night, seizing on a hackneyed statement by Sen. Barack Obama to claim, rather implausibly, that the Democratic nominee was calling Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a pig.
To even entertain McCain’s far-fetched attack, one would have to think Obama had a political death wish. Rather than attack Palin, however, Obama has spent the past few days praising her story and personal characteristics at each stop in Virginia, Ohio and Michigan. He has confined all his criticism to policy differences.
I was sitting at a press table in the Virginia gym as Obama rattled through two cliches to argue that the McCain/Palin ticket could not deliver change. First, Obama reached for a farm analogy: “You can put lipstick on a pig,” he said. “It’s still a pig.” Then he said, “you can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still gonna stink.”
The pig cliche went from Politico to Drudge before Obama had left the stage.
The McCain camp pounced with an emergency conference call, and the press corps unthinkingly dug into the story.
McCain surrogate Jane Swift accused Obama of talking about Palin and demanded an apology. Swift said she thought Obama was referencing Palin because she is the only candidate who wears lipstick. I guess that means no one can take offense at the fish analogy, since none of the candidates are wrapped in newspaper.
This entire non-event — a candidate uses a common cliche in passing while answering a question about “change” — barely merits any reporting. It definitely isn’t worth the lead of The AP’s traveling report on what Obama did today, for example.
Don’t take my word for it; even the journalist who jump-started this drama said so. Amie Parnes, who I’ve been sitting next to this week on Obama’s plane, added this addendum to her short lipstick post:
The McCain campaign is now saying Obama called Palin a pig, which he didn’t. They also note that “lipstick is a fairly common idiom he often uses,” as in a recent Washington Post interview. McCain has also used the phrase…(emphasis added)
This is the kind of blatantly false charge that works even when reported skeptically. Because, frankly, it shouldn’t be reported at all.
Campaign journalists don’t need to cover two sides to every lie — especially an outlandish gender card trick like this one.
For skeptical readers, I’ll note that I filed several policy pieces about Obama today, including one from the Lebanon event. I’m now wading into the pig ploy with the minor goal of providing some context from the road.
Actual sexism still infects American culture and U.S. politics, of course. But McCain and Palin undermine the fight for equality when they falsely and cynically stage fake offenses.
McCain’s decision to put a woman on his ticket was laudable and inspiring, (as I’ve written before), and regardless of the motives, it was good for the country.
McCain’s overall conduct is more significant than that one action, however. His cynical attempt to cloak his ticket in gendered victimhood is an offense to all women and men who value equality — and to any voters who still desire a campaign devoted to a truthful debate of the issues.