What's the Pig Deal?

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

IT'S HARD to think of a presidential campaign with a wider chasm between the seriousness of the issues confronting the country and the triviality, so far anyway, of the political discourse. On a day when the Congressional Budget Office warned of looming deficits and a grim economic outlook, when the stock market faltered even in the wake of the government's rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, when President Bush discussed the road ahead in Iraq and Afghanistan, on what did the campaign of Sen. John McCain spend its energy? A conference call to denounce Sen. Barack Obama for using the phrase "lipstick on a pig" and a new television ad accusing the Democrat of wanting to teach kindergartners about sex before they learn to read.

Mr. Obama's supposedly offending remark was not only not offensive -- it also was not directed at Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. "The other side, suddenly, they're saying 'we're for change too,' " Mr. Obama said. "You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig." With a woman on the ticket, apparently all references to cosmetics -- or pork of the non-bridge variety, for that matter -- are forbidden. "Sen. Obama owes Gov. Palin an apology," sniffed former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift. "Calling a very prominent female governor of one of our states a pig is not exactly what we want to see." No matter that Mr. McCain used the lipstick-on-a-pig phrase himself, referring to (female) Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's health-care plan, or that (female) former McCain aide Torie Clarke wrote a book with that title. In the heat of a campaign, operatives will pounce on any misstep and play to the referees over any arguable foul. We understand that, and certainly the Obama campaign has not been above such tactics. But this cynical use of the gender card is unusually silly.

The kindergarten sex ad, exhuming an argument that Republican Alan Keyes used against Mr. Obama in his 2004 Senate race, was equally ridiculous. "Obama's one accomplishment?" the narrator asks. "Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' -- to kindergartners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama: wrong on education. Wrong for your family." As a state senator, Mr. Obama voted for -- though he did not sponsor -- a measure that set out standards for non-mandatory sex and health education. It required that instruction be "age and developmentally appropriate" and allowed parents to have their children opt out. To call this an accomplishment seems a departure for a campaign that was insisting just last week that Mr. Obama had no legislation to his credit, conveniently ignoring his significant work on a lobbying reform bill. Mr. Obama's support for the Illinois measure seems both reasonable and relatively unimportant.

John McCain is a serious man who promised to wage a serious campaign. Win or lose, will he be able to look back on this one with pride? Right now, it's hard to see how.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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