McCain Camp Sees An Insult in a Saying

GOP's Jane Swift called the remark an obvious reference to Sarah Palin.
GOP's Jane Swift called the remark an obvious reference to Sarah Palin. (Michael Dwyer - AP)
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By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama said yesterday that Sen. John McCain's claim that he will shake up Washington after agreeing with President Bush for so long is like "putting lipstick on a pig" -- a common colloquialism that Obama has used for years, and one that even some Republicans have been known to say. But to the McCain campaign, it was an example of unbridled sexism clearly aimed at Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

"Senator Obama uttered what I can only describe to be disgusting comments, comparing our vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, to a pig," former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift declared in a conference call with reporters.

Obama uttered the phrase in the midst of ridiculing the Republican nominee's commitment to change. "John McCain says he's about change, too," Obama said in an appearance here, leading into a string of ways he contends McCain represents more of the same -- on economic policy, taxes, education, foreign policy, campaign tactics.

"That's not change. That's just calling something that's the same thing something different. You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig," Obama went on, and the crowd erupted in cheers. "You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper and call it change. It's still going to stink, after eight years. We've had enough of the same old thing."

Swift, the newly designated chair of the "Palin Truth Squad," demanded that Obama apologize. She said Obama must have been talking about Palin because she is the only one of the four candidates who wears lipstick, and she called the remark an obvious reference to Palin's joke in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick.

But Anita Dunn, a senior Obama adviser, said: "The McCain campaign's attack tonight is a pathetic attempt to play the gender card about the use of a common analogy -- the same analogy that Senator McCain himself used about Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's health-care plan just last year.

"This phony lecture on gender sensitivity is the height of cynicism," Dunn added.

The saying is usually meant to convey putting the best possible face on a bad situation. Torie Clarke, Donald H. Rumsfeld's press secretary at the Pentagon -- a Republican and a woman -- named her book "Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game." And McCain himself used the phrase late last year to describe Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's plan for universal health care.

"I think they put some lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," McCain said of the plan last October as Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination.

Four reporters were allowed to pose questions during the conference call, and three of them were from women who asked, with obvious incredulity, whether Swift believed that Obama was referring to Palin.

When one reporter asked Swift why she assumed the remarks were directed at Palin, Swift replied: "It seemed to me a gendered comment. There's only one woman in the race."

"As far as I know, she's the only one of the four -- the presidential and vice presidential candidates -- who wears lipstick," Swift said.

Kornblut and Shear reported from Lebanon, Ohio. Staff writer Peter Slevin in Lebanon, Va., contributed to this report.

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