Idiots, idioms, and presidential elections in the Age of Republicans

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 9/18/08

Okay. Let’s get something straight. If, for example, you tell me that the Republican ticket will bring “real change” to the Republican-controlled White House, and I respond by saying, “That dog won’t hunt,” I am not calling Sarah Palin a “dog.” I’m simply using a folksy colloquial expression. If I challenge the national media to “stop beating around the bush” and call the McCain campaign out on their record of lying, or if I suggest that they “get down to business” and start reporting candidates’ positions on the real issues, I am not making lewd comments about Sarah Palin.

Lipstick on Karl Rove

You can see where I’m going with this. When Barak Obama says John McCain’s claim that keeping the Karl Rove crew in charge of the White House will bring change is like “putting lipstick on a pig,” there is virtually no suggestion that he’s calling Sarah Palin a pig, as the McCain campaign alleged last week.

Now, I don’t know where all of these houses John McCain supposedly owns are, but here in the United States of America, we often speak using colloquial, idiomatic expressions. In this case, Obama was playing to his audience by using an expression common to his native Kansas. No biggie here. McCain has also been using the same “lipstick on a pig” line during this campaign season.

The reality is that, as much as the Republican Party would like us to forget about John McCain and focus on the more personable Sarah Palin (but not her history or qualifications), not everything is about Sarah Palin. The charge that Barack Obama was calling Palin a pig has nothing to do with Palin either. It’s just about Republican strategists trying to hold the ball and run the clock out, buying two more days of distraction from the real campaign issues with a manufactured controversy.

Let’s look at what Obama actually said, in context. In mocking the Republican Party’s attempts to steal the change moniker, he said their real message was, “Watch out, George Bush. Except for economic policy, healthcare policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics, we’re really gonna shake things up in Washington.” He continued, saying, “That’s not change. That’s just calling some—the same thing something different. But you know, you can—you know, you can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” His point, made at a campaign stop, was that McCain will continue the same policies as the Bush White House with the same operatives running the same show. That’s his message. It’s pretty simple and shouldn’t take any heavy mental lifting to understand.

No more timeouts

Now let’s look at the McCain response: “He called Sarah Palin a pig!” Given his tactical exposure on these issues, it’s a brilliant response. And the media, dung weevils that they are, ran with it. Why not? Issues are boring. Let’s get on with some mud-wrestling here. Let’s have a real rock ’em, sock ’em, knockout campaign—something that will make for good TV. And let’s try to run the clock out.

That’s the real strategy: Run the clock out. The myth of Sarah Palin the rebel gave the GOP a poll bounce, supposedly putting them even with Barack Obama (unless you count young voters who use cell phones and hence tend not to be polled). The plan now is to freeze this surreal, issue-free, fact-free moment for another 50 or so days, cage a few hundred thousand voter registrations, and hope for the best.

But it gets nastier. Let’s not let this “lipstick on a pig” attack fade into the next contrived non-issue before taking a serious look at it. It’s more than just an attack on Obama for name-calling he didn’t commit. We watched the Republican Convention, where name-calling seemed to be the de rigeur substitute for a platform. This is more than a charge of name-calling.

Watch the new McCain ads on TV. Look at the images. Read the text. This is a charge that a black man disrespected a white woman. Just like the GOP’s 11th-hour Willie Horton campaign that catapulted the first George Bush into the White House, this lightly coded messages plays to the nastiest subconscious and not-so-subconscious aspects of a deep-seated American racism. This was the rationale behind the lynchings of the early 20th century—supposedly protecting white women from black men. And it’s what the Wille Horton ads were all about—linking images of a black man who murdered a white woman with the Democratic candidate for president. And these images worked both times, leading to hundreds of lynchings in the prior instance, and the election of George Bush Senior with the latter.

Whose doctrine?

There’s something going on here that’s even more disturbing than the thought of a Palin presidency—which we have to consider, given that McCain would hit 80 in his second term, his health history, and the average US life expectancy. What’s more upsetting, more frightening, is the collapse of political discourse and rational, reality-based decision-making in the United States. In summation, what concerns me is the collapse of democracy.

In recent interviews Palin let on that she both didn’t quite know the duties of the vice president, and that she was unfamiliar with the “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive war, which is at the core of her party’s controversial foreign policy. It was sort of a Beavis and Butthead moment. Research coming out of Alaska shows that she ran up a huge deficit when mayor of tiny Wasilla, mostly building a recreation center, it turns out, on land the town didn’t quite own, creating an expensive, seven-year legal battle. During her six years in office she raised taxes by almost 40 percent while simultaneously running up a new deficit of more than $4,000 per resident. This year her state government is giving each Alaskan a check for $3,200, supposedly from a state surplus, while borrowing money to pay for road and infrastructure maintenance and construction. Like, wow, let’s take out credit cards in the names of our unborn children—we’re “pro-life.”

The Palin exposés are coming faster than we can digest them: threatening librarians for stocking books she doesn’t like; abuse of power in office to pursue personal vendettas; and a big, nasty penchant for fibbing. The last fib I stumbled across was the sale of Alaska’s luxury jet, not on eBay as she recounted, but in a private sale to a Republican donor.

And McCain. We don’t even need to go there anymore—no one else is.

Our homecoming king and queen

No, the election is not about John McCain and Sarah Palin or Barack Obama and Joe Biden. And it’s not about the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. No. It’s about Sarah Palin’s figure. “She looks purdy,” her biggest supporters in the blogosphere keep reminding us. It’s about her verbal mud-slinging skills—no matter if she tells the truth or makes up reality as she goes along. It’s just TV anyway.

What’s real? She sure has nice hair. And you better not talk nasty about her—she’s a lady. And her family’s off-limits. So we won’t talk about her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. That’s fine. But while you’re at it, don’t mention how many kids get pregnant each year in tiny Wasilla, where, in the wake of Palin’s mayoral gig, they teach “abstinence only” sex education in place of a more traditional comprehensive hygiene curriculum.

Nope. Skip it. She’s a Republican gender model for what’s acceptable for modern women—a woman who claims to do triple duty as governor, mom, and statehouse cook.

I guess we should just hang it up and forget about any substantive political analysis. Not here. No. Joe Wetmore, owner of Autumn Leaves Books in Ithaca, recently explained to me what the election has come down to. “You’ve got the captain of the football team and the prom queen running against the class nerd and the teacher’s pet.” He paused. “Who do you think the class is going to vote for?”

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State Collge. His previous Artvoice columns are available at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2008

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