Sen. Obama is calling the request for an apology over the putative sexism of his “lipstick on a pig” comment a “made up controversy by the John McCain campaign”.  Both sides have it only partially right, and mostly wrong.

To recap the bidding: Obama, when talking about Sen. McCain’s economic plan, said “You can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.”  Media reports said his audience, however he may have intended it, responded with vigorous applause and rising to their feet, as they seem to have heard that as a reference to Gov. Palin, who described the difference between herself, as a hockey mom, and a pit bull, as “lipstick”.

The GOP and McCain camps called it disgraceful and demanded an apology; their surrogates went further, and called it sexism.  Sen. Obama, in turn, said that he was referring to McCain’s policies, not Palin, and refused to apologize.

But the remark was neither entirely innocent and appropriate, nor was it sexist.

Let us stipulate that using the phrase even two weeks ago, as so many have so often done, it would have been just the same colloquialism it has always been.  But since Gov. Palin’s speech, you have to have been stuck in a cave to not know the word “lipstick” now has taken on a whole new code, a reference for the now-famous hockey mom who wears it.

In the new context, saying “lipstick on a pig” meant to many listeners that Gov. Palin isn’t just a  hockey mom that was wearing lipstick, but a pig.  That’s not about sexism, or an attack on women generally; that’s about basic civility, and what certainly came across to many as a base insult specifically directed at her.

Sen. Obama may well not have meant it as it was heard – certainly it’s a common enough phrase used often in the past.  But seeing his audience’s reaction should have been a clue that it now has a whole new meaning.  To pretend that it couldn’t possibly be taken as it was heard is akin to a southerner using the term “boy” in that certain, contemptuous way and then saying he just meant “boy” and how could you possibly think otherwise?  There are words that become freighted with meaning, and the polite and civil thing to drop them or be contextually sensitive in their use.  And if you do inadvertently say something that could be reasonably construed as offensive, you say that that’s not what you meant, apologize if offense was taken, and not use that construction again.

Unfortunately Sen. Obama has refused to do, one fears precisely because he wants to exploit the phrase in the future, with all the in-your-face double-entendre he can now hide behind while animating those who despise Gov. Palin and all she represents.  More fool he if he does, for it will only redound to Gov. Palin’s sympathetic support, but only time will tell.

Heather Higgins chairs the board of the Independent Women’s Forum.