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A Brief History Of: ‘Putting Lipstick on a Pig’

3 minute read
Marti Covington and Maya Curry / Washington

It’s a phrase common in the car sales industry, used to describe taking a hunk of junk, brushing on a fresh coat of paint and selling it for full price. Now, in the wake of Barack Obama’s use of the saying and the McCain/Palin attacks against him over it, “putting lipstick on a pig” has become the latest flashpoint in the presidential campaign circus. But politicians and average joes have tossed around the folksy phrase long before this recent bump on the campaign trail. A sampling:

• One of the oldest published quotes using the entire phrase appeared in The Washington Post in November 1985. Asked by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to put his station’s $20,000 fundraiser earnings toward the renovation of Candlestick Park, KNBR personality Ron Lyons scoffed, “That would be like putting lipstick on a pig.”

• While on the campaign trail with John Kerry in September 2004, then-vice presidential nominee John Edwards derided the Republicans’ attempt to make lackluster job-creation numbers into a shining moment for the Bush administration. “They’re going to try every way they know to put lipstick on this pig,” he said. “But you know when you put lipstick on a pig, at the end of the day, it’s still a pig.”

• At a November 2004 Bush re-election campaign rally in Honolulu, Vice President Dick Cheney peppered his stump speech with the down-home expression, claiming John Kerry’s tough talk about national security was nonsense. “He’s trying every which way to cover up his record of weakness on national defense. But he can’t do it. It won’t work,” Cheney said. “As we like to say in Wyoming, you can put all the lipstick you want on a pig, but at the end of the day it’s still a pig.”

• Torie Clarke, the Pentagon’s communications chief during the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Donald Rumsfeld, published in February 2006 Lipstick on a Pig: Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game. Clarke, who also served at one time as McCain’s press secretary, argues in the book that sugarcoating bad policy doesn’t make the policy any better. “A bad story is still a bad story.”

• While campaigning in Iowa in October 2007, Senator John McCain used the popular expression to criticize Hillary Clinton’s revamped health care plan, arguing that it wasn’t much different from the one she unsuccessfully pushed in 1993. “I think they put some lipstick on the pig, but it’s still a pig,” he said. McCain brought up the phrase again in May of this year to describe Clinton’s health care plan at a town hall in Denver: “I don’t like to use this term, but the latest proposal I see is putting lipstick on a pig,” he said.

• Speaking to more than 500 journalists at a Democratic campaign event in April, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, said John McCain’s healthcare proposals were like “painting lipstick on a pig.” It looked good on the surface, Edwards said, but underneath it was a mess.

• House Minority Leader John Boehner also used the homespun phrase in April, telling reporters that Republican fundraising efforts were far from where they needed to be to ensure victory in November. “Right now our fundraising sucks,” Boehner said. “There’s no other way to put it. There’s no use putting lipstick on a pig.”

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