'All of This for a Damned Flag'?

During a 9/11 commemoration ceremony, Michelle Obama supposedly asked, 'All of this for a damned flag'?


The above-displayed video clip from a 9/11 commemoration ceremony in 2011 shows President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observing a portion of the ceremony in which an honor guard has folded an American flag, at which point the First Lady leans over to her husband and makes a remark, to which the President nods in agreement. The clip has been circulated with the claim that what Michelle Obama said to her husband was the question, "All of this for a damned flag?"

Although it may look to the ordinary viewer that the First Lady's lip movements do correspond to that phrase, it's not possible to definitively determine what she said from that observation alone. Contrary to common belief, lip reading is far from an exact science: a lot of word formation is hidden inside the mouth, and therefore a lip reader can interpret two completely different words or phrases from identical mouth movements. (For example, the lip movements corresponding to voicings of "colorful" and "I love you" can easily be confused with each other.) Much of the process of lip reading involves guesswork and inference from context. And once a viewer has been presented with a particular interpretation of lip movements (as in this case), it's hard for that person to "hear" anything other than what has already been suggested to him.

For what it's worth, a lip reading instructor at the River School in Washington, D.C., did not provide the proffered explanation ("All of this for a damned flag?") of what Michelle Obama supposedly said in this video clip. The school posted a disclaimer on its web site stating:

Please be advised that The River School was not involved in any translation services for a recent video clip currently circulating on the Internet.

Determining exactly what the First Lady might have said via lip reading is complicated by the fact that her lips disappear behind a partition at one point in the clip. Other experienced lip readers have interpreted the sentence uttered by Michelle Obama during this clip to be anything from "We're in for a real fight" to "I wonder if they flew that flag" to "It's amazing how they fold that flag" to "How pretty they fold that flag" (the last of these accompanied by its own video analysis).

The web site Bad Lip Reading does a good job of demonstrating how wildly varied lip reading interpretations of utterances can be:

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