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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan September 10, 2008

SUMMARY: Not quite a week after Gov. Sarah Palin joked about hockey moms being like pit bulls with lipstick, the McCain and Obama campaigns spar sharply over the phrase, "it's like putting lipstick on a pig."

The story begins, like so many these days, with Gov. Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention last week. Having stirred the crowd to its feet more than once, Palin delivered a knock-out line when she deadpanned:

"I love those hockey moms. You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick." The line drew cheerful applause and has echoed ever since, which seems to explain how Sen. Barack Obama found himself in the middle of an uproar when he uttered a time-worn phrase to denigrate Sen. John McCain's proclaimed agenda for "change" in Washington.

After declaring that McCain will follow the policies of President Bush on economics, health care, taxes, education and foreign affairs Obama said, "That's not change. That's just calling the same thing something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig."

Gasp! He just said lipstick! Did he just call Sarah Palin a pig??!!!

That's the charge.

Later that day, the McCain campaign arranged a conference call for reporters with Jane Swift, the former governor of Massachusetts. She said that when you add up Obama's comments and Palin's comments, you get Obama calling Palin a pig. Swift said Obama should apologize.

"Calling a very prominent female governor of one of our states a 'pig' is not exactly what we want to see," Swift said.

The issue has dominated the presidential campaign for two days, with the McCain campaign stirring a controversy by having local lawmakers call for Obama to apologize, and the Obama campaign responding with examples of how often he and others have used the phrase. The Obama campaign called McCain's campaign tactics "lies and phony outrage and Swift-boat politics.

On Wednesday, the McCain campaign released a Web ad called "Lipstick." It begins with a clip of Palin delivering her lipstick line, then text flashes on the screen saying "Barack Obama on: Sarah Palin." A moment later, the ad plays a small portion of Obama's "lipstick on a pig" remark, but not enough of his quotation to make clear what he was talking about. The ad concludes with a clip of CBS anchor Katie Couric soberly remarking on sexism on the campaign trail.

The ad has two big problems, as does the complaint of former Gov. Swift. First, in the full text of the remarks it's clear that Obama isn't talking about Sarah Palin. He's talking about McCain's argument that he represents change.

Second, "putting lipstick on a pig" is a popular put-down, especially among politicians. It generally means taking a bad or unattractive idea and trying to dress it up.

We weren't able to pin down the origins of this folksy expression, but we found tons of instances of people using it. It's so common, the political newspaper The Hill labeled the phrase "Congress Speak" back in June, and gave it an official definition: "an expression used to illustrate that something unattractive cannot be beautified or otherwise positively changed by any amount of makeup or other exterior alterations."

Obama and McCain both have used the expression.

In September 2007, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson quoted Obama using the phrase to discuss Iraq policy:

"I think that both Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are capable people who have been given an impossible assignment," Obama said. "George Bush has given a mission to Gen. Petraeus, and he has done his best to try to figure out how to put lipstick on a pig."

In Iowa on Oct. 11, 2007, McCain panned Sen. Hillary Clinton's health care plan, calling it "eerily reminiscent" of the plan that failed during Bill Clinton's administration, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune .

"I think they put some lipstick on a pig," McCain said, "but it's still a pig."

On Feb. 1, 2007, McCain blasted a Senate resolution that would have criticized President Bush's strategy in Iraq. Some had praised the resolution as a compromise measure, but McCain disagreed. "It gets down to whether you support what is being done in this new strategy or you don't," McCain said. "You can put lipstick on a pig, [but] it's still a pig, in my view."

It is simply impossible to view the complete remarks by Obama and conclude that he's making a veiled and unsavory reference to Palin. Her name never is used in the preceding sentence. In fact, it's hard to see how one could interpret Obama's lipstick-on-a-pig remark as referring directly to McCain, either.

We think it's very clear that Obama was saying McCain's effort to call himself the "candidate of change" is like putting lipstick on a pig, trying to dress up a bad idea to look better. Agree or disagree with Obama's point, but his remark wasn't the smear that McCain's people have tried to make it.

If anyone's doing any smearing, it's the McCain campaign and its outrageous attempt to distort the facts. Did Obama call Palin a pig? No, and saying so is Pants on Fire wrong.

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