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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pigs and Pit Bulls

 The McCain camp has put out a Web ad painting Obama as “ready to smear.”

McCain ad, “Lipstick”

[Title: Sarah Palin on: Sarah Palin]

Palin: Do you know they say, the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.

[Title: Barack Obama on: Sarah Palin]

Obama: But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.

[Title: Katie Couric on: This election]

Couric: One of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life.

[Title: Ready to lead? No. Ready to smear? Yes.]

Let’s start with what the ad gets right. It does seem to be true that Republican v.p. candidate Sarah Palin wears lipstick. And it’s true that she mentioned this particular cosmetic choice at the convention, when she joked that lipstick is the only difference between a hockey mom and pit bull, as the ad shows before it goes completely off the rails. If this were a CoverGirl commercial, we’d be all set.

But it’s not; it’s a political ad. And it goes on to imply that Obama made a personal dig at Palin, calling her a “pig,” and that commentators decried his sexism for derailing the campaign. This is bunk. Let’s look at what Obama actually said at a campaign rally in Virginia:

Obama, Sept. 9: John McCain says he’s about change too. And so I guess his whole angle is, watch out, George Bush — except for economic policy, healthcare policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics, we’re really going to shake things up in Washington. That’s not change. That’s just calling some, the same thing something different. You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

Here’s what the McCain campaign heard, according to ABC News’ Jake Tapper:

Tapper, Sept. 10: Asked why she was so confident Obama was “comparing” Palin to a pig, [former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, on behalf of the McCain campaign,] said Palin was the only one of the four candidates on both parties’ tickets who wears lipstick.

“She is the only one of the four candidates for president or the only vice presidential candidate who wears lipstick,” Swift said. “I mean it seemed to me a very gendered comment.”

But, Swift added, if “as part of his apology Senator Obama wants to say no he was calling Senator McCain — who is a true hero in our country a pig — then I suppose we could wait en masse for an apology to that as well.”

For starters, Swift is ignoring the fact that “putting lipstick on a pig” is a hoary old expression of the same caliber as “building a better mousetrap” or “letting the cat out of the bag.” We did a quick Nexis search on uses of the expression before Tuesday, and found 2,290 instances dating back to 1985 (which is as far back as most Nexis news goes). Its meaning is precisely what Obama was talking about in his speech: calling the same thing something different. Context for the phrase in the last two decades ranged from health care to taxes to fashion to business to, uh, pig racing. It has tumbled from the lips of sports commissioners, librarians and company spokesmen, but it’s particularly popular with politicians. (Congressional newspaper The Hill even featured the phrase in its “Congress Speak” column.) It’s been spotted as far away as New Zealand. It’s even the title of a book by former McCain press aide Torie Clarke.

As several people (including Tapper, Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic, Ben Smith at Politico, the Obama campaign and some of our readers) have pointed out, John McCain employed the phrase in 2007, in talking about Hillary Clinton’s health care plan: “I think they put some lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Oh, and he also said it about Iraq war strategy – if it’s really a personal smear, it’s not clear who’s wearing the lipstick in that example. Obama has used the expression before, too (also in referring to Iraq strategy). But before either McCain or Obama speculated on porcine cosmetics, members of Congress from Rick Santorum to Ted Kennedy had been talking pig lips for years.

If the McCain campaign wants to get literal, ignoring the expression’s long political pedigree, they could go whole hog (as it were) and look at what Obama actually said. He is talking about John McCain’s policies, not about his running mate. “Barack Obama on Sarah Palin”? Not at all.

And “Katie Couric on this election”? Well, it depends on what your definition of “this” is. Couric was referring to the Hillary Clinton campaign, long before Palin was tapped for v.p. Hey, remember when McCain called Clinton’s health plan “lipstick on a pig”?