Let the Silly Season Begin: Obama Says 'Lipstick' Controversy Overblown

Barack Obama assailed John McCain's campaign today for claiming that he had insulted Sarah Palin by using the expression "lipstick on a pig" to describe McCain's portrayal of himself as an agent of change.

Speaking at a high school in Norfolk, Va., this morning, Obama slammed the McCain camp for cynically making up a controversy and accusing him of saying something he simply never said.

"Spare me the phony outrage, spare me the phony talk about change, we have real problems in this country right now," the Democratic presidential nominee from Illinois said. "The American people are looking to us for answers. Not distractions, not diversions."

What Obama called "phony outrage" inundated the airwaves today, even making its way to the House floor.


"Sen. Obama might find such jokes funny, but women will only find them insulting," said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich. "American women also understand that if this is the kind of change that Sen. Obama is offering to America, it is really no change at all. Sen. Obama owes Gov. Palin and the women of America an apology."

The dispute began Tuesday night in Lebanon, Va., where Obama said that the Republican presidential nominee cannot offer change because he agrees so often with President Bush.

"Guess his whole angle is 'Watch out, George Bush' -- except for economic policy, health-care 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," Obama said. "You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."

Obama had been talking for more than 25 minutes and had not once mentioned Palin. But some in the crowd thought Obama was alluding to the joke that the Alaska governor had made in her convention speech last week in which she said, "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."

Seizing the Lipstick Moment

Sensing an opportunity, the McCain campaign immediately produced a Web video that flatly -- and falsely -- accused Obama of calling Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, a pig. The ad shows video of Obama making "lipstick on a pig" remarks with the text on the screen that read "Barack Obama on Sarah Palin."

It also included footage of CBS News anchor Katie Couric saying that "one of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life." The ad was later pulled for copyright reasons.

The McCain campaign also set up a conference call with former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, who was recently selected to chair the "Palin Truth Squad," a group created by the McCain camp to combat accusations and attacks on Palin.

"Sen. Obama uttered what I can only describe to be disgusting comments, comparing our vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, to a pig," Swift told reporters on the call. "Calling a very prominent female governor a pig is not exactly what we want to see."

Obama Says 'Enough Is Enough'

Obama decided today that he had to respond and criticized the McCain campaign for using the remarks as a distraction from real issues.

"It is a game," he said. "It's a sport. And maybe if this wasn't such a serious time that would be OK. This is serious. There are some real stakes."

Obama also accused the Arizona senator's campaign of "swift boating" him, a reference to the 2004 presidential election when the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched false attack ads about Democratic candidate John Kerry's military service.

"I don't care what they say about me, but I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and Swift Boat politics," Obama said. "Enough is enough."

The Obama campaign also criticized the McCain campaign for playing the gender card.

"The phony lecture on gender sensitivity is the height of cynicism and lays bare the increasingly dishonorable campaign John McCain has chosen to run," Obama senior campaign adviser Anita Dunn said.

Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama was merely quoting a commonly used phrase.

"That expression is older than my grandfather's grandfather," Psaki said. "It means that you can dress something up, but it doesn't change what it is."

"Lipstick on a pig" is a common expression in politics, used for years. McCain used the phrase three times during the primary campaign, including once to suggest that New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton's health-care plan proposal was similar to the plan she came up with in 1993, when she led a health-care reorganization proposal during President Clinton's administration.

"The latest proposal I see is putting lipstick on a pig, as we used to, as we used to say," McCain said during a Denver campaign appearance in May.

Obama shifted tones in an interview that will air on the "Late Show With David Letterman" tonight, boiling the whole controversy down to political "silly season."

"It's a common expression, at least in Illinois. I don't know about New York City, I don't know where you guys put lipstick on here," Obama joked, making fun of a development that has dominated today's news cycle.

"Keep in mind that, technically, had I meant it this way, she would be the lipstick," Obama told Letterman. "The failed policies of John McCain would be the pig. ... I mean, just following the logic of this illogical situation."

ABC News' Andy Fies, Alice Maggin and Julia Hoppock contributed to this report.