When Barack Obama said of rival John McCain's economic plan, "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," Republicans loudly complained that he was attacking vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who had connected lipstick, hockey moms, and pit bulls in her speech at the Republic Convention.
But lipstick on a pig is an insult used by Democrats and Republicans alike, and it's been a political staple at least since 2004. The real issue isn't whether Obama was insulting Palin, McCain's economics, or both. Instead, the media circus that we might call pig-gate has become an object lesson in how interpretation depends more on attempts to control what words mean than on what their dictionary definitions say they mean.
Sen. Obama prefaced his remarks at a Norfolk, Virginia, high school by calling Republican objections to his phrase “lipstick on a pig,” describing the McCain economic plan, as "phony outrage."
Democrats were likening McCain's economic proposals to "lipstick on a pig" well before he chose Palin as his running mate. A press release put out in July by the Democratic National Committee reads,
When John McCain rolls out his "Jobs First" economic tour in Denver today, he'll have a lot of explaining to do to the American people. Senator McCain, according to the Wall Street Journal, "isn't expected to say anything new" and will only "repackage proposals he has already outlined," the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. [PR Newswire, July 7, 2008]
It turns out that putting lipstick on a pig – dressing something up to look better than it is – is actually a holdover from the 2004 campaign, where it was used both by Democrats and Republicans.
John Edwards and Dick Cheney likened their opponents' plans to putting lipstick on a pig when they were running for vice president. Comparing these two candidates in 2004, the New York Times reported:
"As we like to say in Wyoming, you can put all the lipstick you want on a pig, but it'll still be a pig," Mr. Cheney says of Mr. Kerry's record.
The Times added,
Mr. Edwards says of the economy: "George Bush is going to do everything he can to put lipstick on this pig. But no matter how much lipstick you put on it, it's still a pig."
Vice President Cheney, veteran rancher, accomplished marksman, and suspected cyborg, at a 2004 rally accusing Democrats, who know very little about raising livestock but a lot about brie, chablis, and windsurfing, of putting lipstick on their pigs
Not only that, but as this New York Times report shows, John McCain himself used the "lipstick on a pig" comparison to describe Hillary Clinton's health care plan in 2004 as well:
When asked about Mrs. Clinton, [Sen. McCain] said her proposal was ''eerily'' similar to the plan she came up with in 1993, when she headed a health care reorganization effort during her husband's administration. ''I think they put some lipstick on a pig,'' he said, ''but it's still a pig.''
A sexist attack on Sen. Clinton? Maybe it was, especially if you consider that John McCain's former press aide Torie Clarke, who also served as Donald Rumsfeld's press secretary, wrote a primer called Lipstick on a Pig in 2006 which advised politicians how to spin their message while pretending not to. The book's subtitle, Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game, suggests that Clarke learned that game from mentors like McCain and Rumsfeld.
By the time you read this, Republicans will have loudly insisted that their intention in 2004 was merely to bad-mouth Hillary's health care reforms, not imply that her face needs work. At the same time they'll continue to insist that Obama's words were a personal attack on the governor of Alaska.
Torie Clarke's Lipstick on a Pig is a guide to using spin while pretending not to
It's true that words have meanings – the existence of dictionaries should confirm that if anyone had doubts. But it's also true that our interpretation of an utterance depends a lot on bias, subjectivity, and personal predisposition as well.
Thus five Supreme Court justices believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to gun ownership because that's exactly what they want it to mean, while the other four read the same text and come to the opposite conclusion, because they believe that personal gun ownership does more harm than good.
Writing in the New Republic, no less a figure than the libertarian and outspoken Judge Richard Posner has charged that in the Heller decision, the Court was voting its politics, and that conservative justices were doing exactly what they've been criticizing liberals for doing, legislating from the bench.
And some people know the world was created in six days, because that's what the words on the page say to them, while others interpret the same words as allusive and poetic, anything but literal.
The fact that Republican spin doctors are distorting the words of Democrats shouldn't surprise us – after all, these are the same people who call the Democratic Party the Democrat Party, because, while republican is both neutral and not very common in ordinary speech, democratic is an adjective with a positive spin that we throw around all the time.
It kills Republicans that someone might see a connection between the big "D" Democratic of electoral politics and the little "d" democratic that underlies the American political system, and by calling a plan a "Democrat proposal" instead of a "Democratic" one they feel they're taking ownership of the word, while denying ownership to the other side.
Given half a chance, Democrats do the same thing to the utterances of Republicans, when they're not too busy doing it to themselves.
Ultimately, it should come as no surprise that politicians take cheap shots at one another. Nor is it strange for Republicans and Democrats to come up with opposite interpretations of the same text.
Politics may make strange bedfellows, as the saying goes – and it's a saying that's even older than giving pigs makeovers. But as the present uproar over the Obama sound bite suggests, politics makes for even stranger readers. What pig-gate illustrates best is not a struggle over what words mean, but a struggle over who gets to control that meaning. And the winner won't be the party which can show that the dictionary and the historical record support their interpretation, it will be the party whose interpretation of the words gets the most votes.