Republicans And Pink Underwear

[ Posted Tuesday, October 26th, 2010 – 16:34 UTC ]

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Arizona, recently made the news. In his own words: "I just got done welcoming Sarah Palin to our County [sic]. Had a nice chat and gave her a pair of pink underwear." This marks a turning point in the American political scene, where pink underwear has been rehabilitated, so to speak, within the Republican Party.

Now, I should probably be writing about the election or some other weighty subject, but this news item... well... tickled me pink. [OK, sorry about that. I'll stop now.] Because I remember the historic origins of pink underwear as a political symbol in the Republican Party, which I thought was worth sharing in an effort to provide a lighthearted moment in the midst of the election fracas.

Of course, this requires us to delve into history to provide a bit of context. For our younger readers, then: a long, long time ago -- when dinosaurs were probably walking to and fro upon the Earth -- America and the Soviet Union engaged in what was known as the "Cold War." "How can a war be cold?" you may wonder. Well, this term was born to differentiate what happened in the post-World War II period from a "hot" or "shooting" war, where we were actually on a battlefield trying to kill each other. Several proxy "hot" wars were fought during this period (Korea, Vietnam), but no open warfare ever happened between us and the Soviets -- which was probably a good thing, since we both had thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-triggers, pointed at each other.

Instead, the Cold War was a war of ideology. It was the big showdown between Capitalism and Communism. And Communism, for reasons I didn't bother researching (sorry about that) had its own color: red. Just take a look at the Soviet flag to see this. Over here in America, the color became shorthand for communists, as in the phrases "a Red under the bed," or the even more bellicose "better dead than Red." It also gave rise to Senator Joe McCarthy's witchhunts (apologies to Christine O'Donnell, as these were not literal witchhunts) and the House Un-American Activities Committee ("H.U.A.C." or "H.U.A.A.C."), which launched investigations into Hollywood and other known liberal hotbeds. These activities came to be known as "red-baiting."

But after all the Reds had been taken care of, Republicans turned their attention to what they called "fellow travelers" -- those folks who sympathized with the Commies, but perhaps weren't ready to turn America into a Soviet Republic quite yet. These folks were known as "Socialists," among other names. One derogatory name they were called was "pinkos" -- since they were slightly red, but not the full-on fire-engine red of an actual Commie. "Pink" and "pinko" were used as slanders -- but not outright accusations, the way that "dirty Red" was used during the same time period.

Enter Richard Nixon. Long before he became president, and before he even became vice president, Nixon was an obscure House member from California. He rose to national prominence as a member of H.U.A.A.C. during the Alger Hiss spy case, and a few years later (in 1950) ran for a Senate seat as a result. His opponent in this race was a former actress, Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom Nixon decided was one of those Commie sympathizers (she was, after all, a known actress, and therefore probably spent time in Hollywood, as well).

Here's where all of this becomes relevant to our storyline. Nixon famously described his opponent as being "pink right down to her underwear." In other words, even her bra and panties were probably left-wing, if not downright Communistic. Nixon won his race, and went on to reach greater political heights, before becoming the first president to ever resign the office in disgrace. Douglas did slightly get her own back, though, as she was the one who coined the nickname "Tricky Dick," which clung to Nixon for the rest of his political life.

Fast forward a number of decades, and in the 1990s, the collective mind of the mainstream media determined that "red" meant "Republican," and that "blue" meant "Democrat." I've always found this amusing, personally, because of the historical negative connotations of the color red in American (and worldwide) politics. Which is why I bring it up again, for sheer amusement, as it has absolutely nothing to do with our storyline.

In other unrelated color-specific history, at some point pink became the color of fighting breast cancer. Today, even professional male athletes (in all sports, even football) wear pink on their uniforms during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Again, this has nothing whatsoever to do with our narrative, so we'll quickly move along.

Getting back to our history of pink underwear as political symbology, a few years back Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona decided he was going to be the biggest and baddest sheriff west of the Pecos (or something, sorry if I'm using movie-Western lingo incorrectly here). To further this end, he started rounding up everyone he could and locking them up in jail. This led to horrendous jail overcrowding, and judges telling him he had to alleviate the situation. Because Sheriff Joe "don't take kindly" to such orders from effete judges, he came up with a novel solution to the situation -- erect a tent city outdoor "jail" for the hordes of people he was locking up. Inmates (many of whom haven't been convicted of anything, but are merely awaiting trial) sit in the 100-degree-plus heat under canvas tents all day.

But this wasn't enough humiliation, according to Sheriff Joe. So he decided to take things a step further, and add some emasculating symbology to the mix. Pink is, after all (football players' uniforms during breast cancer month notwithstanding) the color of girls. It is not a macho color, in any way shape or form. So Joe ordered up a whole bunch of pink underwear for the prisoners to wear. This was somewhat of a P.R. coup for him, as he got lots of press attention for doing so, and now it is one of his signature achievements, at least as ol' Joe sees things.

Which brings us back full circle, to Sarah Palin visiting Joe's stomping grounds. Sheriff Joe obviously thought it would be amusing to give a former Republican vice presidential candidate pink underwear as an appropriately symbolic political gift. In 60 years, in other words, we've gone from Republicans using the spectre of pink underwear as a campaign attack against a Democratic opponent, to Republicans giving each other pink underwear as a gag gift. Seeing as how Nixon was ultimately known in the political world for quitting high office before his term was complete, I guess this is karmically appropriate as well.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Republicans And Pink Underwear”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    How could you forget Pinky Tuscadero!!!??? :D


  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Yeah, I tried to work in the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine, just because I love the Blue Meanie's line (when he meets the Fab Four for the first time):

    "Are you... ah.... blue-ish? You don't look... blue-ish..."

    but I couldn't connect the dots with the rest of the article somehow...



Comments for this article are closed.