From the people who brought you SnubGate and TurbanGate comes a new dark comedy, now playing on a television, newspaper page, and computer screen near you:

His insurgent campaign won him the nomination for the presidency of the United States. He said he wanted to fix the economy. He said he wanted to fix health care. He said he wanted to end the war in Iraq. He roused crowds with his lofty talk of change. He said he was well on his way to taking that change to Washington. Until, one day, he called the opposition a pig.

LipstickOnAPigGate. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Mostly you’ll cry.


Yeah. By now, you’ve heard the story. Barack Obama, last night, described the policies of “change”—about the economy, about healthcare, about reform in general—that John McCain and Sarah Palin (who—have you heard?—is a woman) want to enact in Washington. “That’s not change,” Obama said. “That’s just calling the same thing something different. But, you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

Per the script: Obama mentioned Palin and a metaphorical pig in the same speech. Obama is, therefore, sexist. Insert your favorite pig/boar/pork/Miss Piggy reference here.

The whole LipstickOnAPigGate script is exciting, to be sure, a political plot full of suspense and twists and turns. (And full of pigs, which are always crowd pleasers! Babe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, rolled into one at last!) But, in that, it also follows a narrative arc that is as frustrating as it is utterly predictable.

Take the money quote from the script, courtesy of Reuters, a line that doubles as, perhaps, the most ridiculous sentence I’ve had the misfortune to read since the start of 2008’s presidential campaigns:

Obama’s campaign said it was clear he was not referring to Palin, a little-known Alaska governor before she became McCain’s running mate, and was not calling her a pig.

And was not calling her a pig. This is pathetic in every sense—pathetic, because it’s pitiable; pathetic, because it’s regrettable; pathetic, because it’s packed with a pathos that is as extreme as it is unnecessary. And it’s so not merely because it involves a campaign for the presidency of the United States being forced to clarify that its candidate was not, in fact, making a porcine allusion in reference to a (female) member of the opposition. It’s also pathetic because the clarification itself should have been utterly unnecessary: Obama has used the lipstick-on-a-pig line several times before. Palin herself made a lipstick-on-hockey-moms quip in her game-changing RNC speech last week. McCain himself has used the lipstick-on-a-pig line previously…in reference to Hillary Clinton’s healthcare policies.

But wait! you may say. Hillary Clinton’s a Lady! Wouldn’t that, in fairness, make McCain sexist, too?

No, it wouldn’t. Because the Clinton campaign didn’t play the Umbrage Card the way the McCain campaign did yesterday. They didn’t make an issue of the laughably innocent phrase, confident that the media, unable to resist so juicy a story—the punny headlines practically write themselves!—would bite on it and make it, you know, A Thing. They didn’t; the McCain campaign did. So it’s Obama who gets the “he demeans women” narrative in the media.

And he gets it in spite of the widespread recognition among the media that the lipstick line was—clearly—not intended as a slur on Palin. “This is the press just absolutely playing into the McCain campaign’s crocodile tears,” Mark Halperin said on CNN last night. “And this is a victory for the McCain campaign, in the sense that, every day, they can make this a pig fight in the mud. It’s good for them, because it’s reducing Barack Obama’s message even more.”

Chuck Todd, appearing on today’s Morning Joe, agreed:

I think the McCain campaign is laughing—laughing their butts off this morning that any of us have taken the bait on this lipstick thing. I mean, this is a joke. It is laughable, and you know, look, our mutual friend, [MSNBC executive producer] Chris Licht, and I were having an off-air debate about whether we … should be airing the Web ad, because it’s such a faux controversy. It’s made up out of whole cloth by the McCain campaign. Hey, look, this is what they’re good at. They’re good at winning these news cycles, and … they have beaten the Obama campaign on these little—what I call—sort of shiny metal object days, right? They’re able to say, “Oh, look!, shiny metal object.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.