A Piggish Debate

By Lee Speigel

Sep 9, 2008 8:42pm

Last October, asked about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was blunt.

McCain said Clinton’s proposal was “eerily” similar to the ill-fated plan she devised in 1993.

“I think they put some lipstick on a pig,” he said, “but it’s still a pig.”

A common expression, right?

McCain surely wasn’t calling Clinton a pig.

After all, McCain’s former press secretary, Torie Clarke, wrote a book called "Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era."

Elizabeth Edwards told some health journalists that McCain’s health care plan was like “painting lipstick on a pig.”

Tonight Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said of McCain painting himself as a change agent, "You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig."

The crowd rose and applauded.

(Some of them no doubt were thinking he may have been in some way alluding to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s ad lib during her vice presidential nomination acceptance speech last week, "What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.")

"You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called ‘change,’" Obama continued, "it’s still gonna stink after eight years. We’ve had enough of the same old thing! It’s time to bring about real change to Washington.  And that’s the choice you’ve got in this election."

Obama’s campaign insisted that he was not alluding to Palin at all.

"That expression is older than my grandfather’s grandfather," said Obama campaign spox Jen Psaki, "and it means that you can dress something up but it doesn’t change what it is. He was talking pretty clearly about the fact that you can’t just call yourself change when you’ve voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time."

Obama has used the expression before. Last September, around the time McCain said it about Clinton’s health care plan.

"I think that both Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are capable people who have been given an impossible assignment," Obama said in a telephone interview. "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."

Why should anyone believe McCain didn’t mean it about Hillary Clinton, but Obama meant it about Palin?

And yet, the inaugural conference call of what the McCain-Palin campaign is calling the "Palin Truth Squad" addressed Obama’s remark.

And interestingly, the Truth Squad call was full of half-truths and statements that weren’t true at all.

Speaking on behalf of the McCain campaign, former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift tonight flatly stated that Obama had called Palin a pig.

"[T]he formation of the Palin Truth Squad couldn’t have happened too soon, as we saw when Sen. Obama in Lebanon, Va., this evening uttered what I can only deem to be disgraceful comments comparing our vice presidential nominee Gov. Palin to a pig," Swift said.

"Sen. Obama owes Gov. Palin an apology," she said.

Asked why she was so confident Obama was "comparing" Palin to a pig, she 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 Sen. Obama wants to say, no, he was calling Sen. 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."

It was pointed out to Swift that, after the line about the pig, Obama had said, "You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called ‘change,’ it’s still gonna stink after eight years."

Swift then suggested that Obama was calling McCain a fish.

"I have a fourth-grader and two second-graders at home," she said. "I would not teach them that this is sort of a high-minded debate on policy issues when they are calling people rotten old fish or a pig. In fact, it sounds a lot like some of the least intelligent debates on the playground sound like at our elementary school."

A reporter then reminded Swift that in December, McCain was asked about criticisms coming his way from then-opponent Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., and McCain replied, "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."

Was McCain calling Romney a pig? a reporter asked Swift.

Of course not, Swift said.

It seems to me we should have one rule. If Obama was calling Palin a pig, then McCain was calling Hillary Clinton one. If McCain wasn’t, then Obama wasn’t.

- jpt

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