Pigs and politics


In recent days, American political discourse has not been dominated by the Republican elephant, nor by the Democratic donkey, but instead by the humblest of barnyard livestock -- the pig, as in "You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig."

Does anyone actually put lipstick on a pig? The swine I see at the county 4-H fair are dolled up for judging, but when I checked with the county extension agent, he said that lipstick is not a factor. The pigs often get their hair trimmed in spots to improve muscular definition. As far as makeup goes, dark pigs may get a light coat of mineral oil to enhance their luster, while pale porkers might be dusted with white flour for a more even color.

So it appears that the phrase "lipstick on a pig" does not come from agriculture. It's one of those self-evident phrases that shows up in politics from time to time, and it's not the only porcine political reference.

Back in 1981, David Stockman, a Michigan congressman, was appointed head of the White House Office of Management and Budget. His mission was to cut federal spending, but he didn't get far. As he explained later, various congressional interests and lobbyists acted like "hogs feeding at the trough."

And seldom does a day pass now without a reference to political "pork," as in "pork-barrel spending." The "pork barrel" is easy enough to explain; in the days before refrigeration, pork was packed with brine into wooden barrels.

How did pork barrels come to symbolize "earmarks" or "legislation designed to benefit certain interests in exchange for campaign contributions"? The short answer is that no one is sure; the long answer is that there are many etymological theories, none all that persuasive.

I had my own adventure with pigs and politics about three decades ago. My wife and I owned a newspaper in Grand County, Colo., and we covered the town of Hot Sulphur Springs. There was a municipal election. We interviewed the candidates for town board, among them a woman who owned a small cafe.

She refused to answer any of our reporter's questions about the town's issues and prospects, and so in my endorsement editorial, I said Hot Sulphur Springs voters should look elsewhere, as voting for her would be like "buying a pig in a poke."

I thought I was just using a common cautionary expression, but she said that I had called her a pig, and thereby implied that her cafe was unsanitary when in fact it was quite clean. She threatened litigation, but quieted after one prominent local resident called her an idiot for not knowing that a poke in this context was a bag ("my mamma used to send me to the store for a poke of potatoes") and that you should always look inside the bag before making the deal.

Pigs, of course, are part of our vernacular in many fields besides politics. The Bible tells us not to "cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you."

"When pigs fly" is another way of saying "never" or "in your dreams," and to "go whole-hog" is to pull out all the stops.

My mother occasionally says that someone is "as independent as a hog on ice." She means the person is too bull-headed to get anything done, just a pig trying to move on a slick service will flail away without getting anywhere.

That may be a nicer porcine reference than what my dad said once when I was supposed to be helping him on some household project, and I could never come up with the tool he sent me to fetch. "Eddie, you're about as useful as teats on a boar," he exclaimed.

Pigs -- boars, sows, hogs, swine -- may not be part of our daily life any more, since few Americans live on farms, but porkers certainly remain part of our daily vocabulary. starting with the childhood story of the three little pigs.

And there's another common, if seldom printed, porcine expression: "Happy as a pig in shit." Considering what we get from some political campaigns this year, that may be the easiest route to bliss.