Never Say “Lipstick”

Barack Obama’s supporters recognized a smear that he didn’t intend. When he spoke of putting lipstick on a pig, the house exploded with laughter. Talk about red meat.

Only problem is, Obama didn’t mean it “that way.” And that’s Barack’s problem, not McCain’s, or Sarah Palin’s. Barack said it, paused (as he is wont to do), and his audience punctuated his remark with wild enthusiasm as if they believed it was about Sarah Palin. And right at that moment it became about Sarah Palin. And there was almost nothing Barack Obama could do about it.

The McCain campaign posted a web ad exploiting Obama’s slip. Big mistake, if you ask me. Or maybe not so big if the real “catnip for the media” (Obama’s estimation of his comment) continues to be the video of Obama’s slip and not the McCain ad.

Dennis Miller has an interesting theory about what happened. “Lady Palin,” he said, “is deep inside Obama’s mellon.” I’m from California, so let me translate. The esteemed governor Palin has become so popular and has so effectively derailed the Obama campaign that Obama can’t get her out of his head and he doesn’t know what to do.

What’s this got to do with the lipstick gaffe? Ms. Palin’s most memorable remark during her convention speech was the alleged extempore joke about the difference between a hocky mom and a pitbull. She pointed to her mouth and said, “Lipstick.” America liked that, and they liked Sarah Palin. Still do.

So the lipstick motif became a fixture of the McCain camp. Miller speculates that this motif took subliminal root in Obama’s consciousness. Without malice or forethought, the motif surfaced in the form of a long-standing aphorism. Obama’s problem is that this aphorism had never before been used in this peculiar political context.

People are beginning to speculate that Obama has a liability that could injure him in his upcoming debate with John McCain. He seems constitutionally incapable of packaging his ideas in the form of a sound byte. When commenting without a script, his statements are neither crisp nor compact. (In this respect, he is more like President Bush than John McCain is.) Obama may be thinking now that going for the spontaneous repartee may be more dangerous than his typically long-winded answers to questions he could answer with a simple “yes” or “no.”


By the way, suppose Obama was actually intentionally ambiguous when he said what he did. Would that really be sexist?

What say you?

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

4 Responses to Never Say “Lipstick”

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Pacific,

    Thanks for visiting this blog and commenting on this post.

    I don’t pretend to know what was going on in Obama’s mind when he made his statement. The cliche is used widely and has been used by political candidate who have not been criticized for doing so. The key difference in this case is that Obama used this unfortunate phrase in a context that gave it different significance than the usual innocuous sense it has. This is demonstrated by Obama’s audience, which responded as if they believed he was taking a less than subtle jab at Palin.

    Again, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. But it proved to be a (temporary) problem for him either way.


  2. Pacifico says:

    Hello, I’m an overseas-living moderate Republican (with some concerns over the quality of decision-making and intelligence shown in this incarnation of the GOP) reading your diary blog for the first time today. It’s interesting.

    Within few hours of Barack Obama’s “lipstick” comment back in September, footage of John McCain speaking disparagingly of Hilary Clinton’s health care plan – by using the same phrase, not once, but twice in October 2007 and May 2008 – was widespread. At the time, the tone of the responses from their peers and the public was nearly exactly the same as the backlash against Barack Obama. I remember the incidents well, and the bitter disappointment in watching McCain taste the same shoe-leather twice. Twice.

    Do you stand by your statement that “Obama’s problem is that this aphorism had never before been used in this peculiar political context”, and do you entertain the possibility, given that we do not know exactly which logical leaps go on inside another’s brain, that either or both of them truly may have meant that old phrase innocently? ie, without sexism?

    (Heh, imagine if Obama had connected something, anything, to how even an “old, blind pig can sometimes find a truffle” in the immediate aftermath of Sarah Palin’s introduction? From whence I hail that’s an even more common phrase. But I’ve never heard of anyone being accused of ageism for invoking it.)


  3. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Reb,

    Do you honestly believe that social conservatives—the right wing—are the only ones who engage in this sort of gamesmanship? It seems you’ve fallen into this very pattern with your locution “G.O.Pig.”


  4. REB 84 says:

    The right-wing talking heads are up to their old tricks of distortion and distraction by playing the self-righteous victim over Barack Obama’s ‘lipstick on a pig’ reference to the McCain campaign’s claim to be change agents.

    As usual, the news media is all over this little manufactured spat. However, I have not heard anyone mention another way of looking at this thing. Could it be argued that the G.O.Pig represents a continuation of the past eight years of bankrupt policies, and Sarah Palin is the young attractive lipstick that has been applied to this pig to make it more appealing?



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