The Latest Nasty Political Epithet: Michelle Obama Is Fat

A look at how the emerging meme attacking the First Lady's anti-obesity efforts fits into past political put-downs

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Rush Limbaugh called Michelle Obama fat Monday. Obama and her daughters went skiing in Colorado and afterward ate braised ancho-chile short ribs. The Drudge report pulled a recipe from for ancho-chile short ribs that had 1,500 calories per serving. 1,500 calories! And Michelle wants to fight obesity! Limbaugh called the first lady a hypocrite and, worse, said she did "not project the image of women you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue."

Limbaugh made his comments a day after Andrew Breitbart's site Big Journalism posted this cartoon:

And thus, a meme was born.

Media Matters commenter kromecom48 succinctly summarized the reaction of many, saying, "People who live in 'LARD HOUSES' SHOULDN'T THROW BISCUITS!" But this is about more than a fatty radio show host. This meme has sticking power. Why?  Because it taps into a classic critique of liberals, one with a tiny kernel of truth: Liberals want to make rules for everyone, except themselves.

Here are a few other tropes that sunk the political careers of others.

The Epithet:
  George H.W. Bush is a Wimp

Backstory: In 1987, Newsweek featured then-Vice President Bush on the cover next to the headline: "Fighting the Wimp Factor." A Doonesbury cartoon showed Bush putting his "manhood in a blind trust" in order to be Ronald Reagan's running mate. He later killed this meme by invading Panama.

The Kernel of Truth: Bush was a rich guy from Connecticut who was (maybe) amazed by a barcode scanner at a grocery store.

What They Say: "If you recall, I fought it like the bloody death. I never heard a wimp out of you, not a word." -- Alexander Haig at the first Republican primary debate in 1988. Haig insisted that unlike Bush, he had strongly opposed a ban on intermediate range missiles in Europe.

What They Really Mean: You should vote for a Republican who doesn't have a problem invading countries.

The Epithet:  Bill Clinton is "Slick Willie"
Backstory: Time made an anti-Clinton cover so good the magazine had to sue the Bush campaign to stop them from using it in their attack ads. Headline: "Why Voters Don't Trust Clinton." The term was coined by an Arkansas newspaper who didn't think Clinton was as reformist as his predecessors, but the term caught on with conservatives.
The Kernel of Truth: A younger generation remains baffled that anyone ever believed someone who said, "I didn't inhale." Boomers! What's up with them?
What They Say: "Slick Willie wants you to question your motives very, very deeply. Then, after you've examined your conscience and rid yourself of every vestige of bias, bigotry, intolerance, small-mindedness, etc., surely you'll see the light and support Slick Willie and those he supports... Merely a matter of transcending your prejudices and achieving a state of Slick Willie-like enlightenment, to which, Slick Willie is sure, we all should aspire." Newsday, 1993.
What They Really Mean: The president is a con man, his high poll numbers just show how good he is at his con.

The Epithet: Hillary Clinton is a Ball-Crusher
Backstory: Clinton went by Hillary Rodham for a while. She said she didn't want to bake cookies. Also she did try to join the Marines.
The Kernel of Truth: If she did want to crush her husband's balls, could you really blame her?
What They Say: "She's a bitch. About the only thing he ever said about her. I think they had some meeting, you know, and she takes over." -- Kathleen Gingrich, mother to Newt, in 1995.
What They Really Mean: You don't want this coldhearted bitch messing with your health care, do you?

The Epithet: George W. Bush is Stupid
The Kernel of Truth: "Rarely is the question asked, 'Is our children learning?'"
What They Say: Bush is an "incurious" "cowboy." As New Orleans was being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, "Bush blithely proceeded with the rest of his schedule for the day, accepting a gift guitar at one event and pretending to riff like Tom Cruise in Risky Business."
What They Really Mean: This guy is just the face of the administration; the real puppetmaster is evil-mastermind-Haliburton-crony Dick Cheney.

The Epithet: Obama Is an Elitist, Also Foreign, Also Muslim
Backstory: Your aunt keeps forwarding you these infuriating emails.
The Kernel of Truth: In his first speech to a national audience, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he described himself as a "skinny kid with a funny name."
What They Say: "He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."  -- Karl Rove on Obama in 2008.
What They Really Mean: You should fear all his proposals as foreign--maybe Islamic, possibly European--influences.

So what's really being said in the latest political put-down meme, "Michelle Obama is fat"? Basically the same thing conservatives have said of other lefty reformists: don't trust do-gooding liberals and their high-minded ideas; they like to tell other people how to live but can't follow their own advice (see the glee at Al Gore's huge home electricity bill)--only much meaner.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.