NEW YORK — Ever eager to provoke, Rush Limbaugh has now succeeded into drawing the White House into a skirmish. The spark: Limbaugh telling his talk show fans that a law student was a "slut" for her testimony to Congress about the need for birth control coverage.
On Friday, two days after Limbaugh's tirade, President Barack Obama called student Sandra Fluke to commend her willingness to speak out and share her dismay over the slur.
The White House termed Limbaugh's remarks "reprehensible," and the criticism was echoed by Democratic members of Congress, women's groups, and the administration and faculty at Georgetown University, the Roman Catholic school in Washington that Fluke attends.
Calls for Limbaugh's sponsors to pull their ads from his show rocketed through cyberspace, and several companies, including Quicken Loans, LegalZoom online legal document service, and bedding retailers Sleep Train and Sleep Number, bowed to the pressure.
For Obama, it was an emphatic plunge into the latest flare-up on social issues. Democratic officeholders and liberal advocacy have accused Republicans of waging a "war on women" because of GOP stances on contraception and abortion rights, and Limbaugh's disparaging remarks were seen as an escalation.
"The fact that our political discourse has become debased in many ways is bad enough," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "It is worse when it's directed at a private citizen who was simply expressing her views."
Obama reached Fluke by phone as she was waiting to go on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports."
"He's really a very a kind man," Fluke later told The Associated Press. "He just called to express concern for me and to make sure I was OK and to say that he supported me and to thank me for speaking out about something that's so important to so many women."
As for Limbaugh's remarks, Fluke said, "I just thought that they were really outside the bounds of civil discourse."
By calling Fluke and injecting himself into the Limbaugh controversy, Obama sent a message to more than one student. He was reaching out to young voters and women — groups whose support he needs in this re-election year. And he was underscoring that the White House, despite bungling its rollout of the birth control policy, sees it as a winning issue and welcomes Obama's name next to it.
Even some Republicans chided Limbaugh.
Scott Brown, who is seeking re-election to the Senate from Massachusetts, said Limbaugh should apologize. Former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum said the controversy distracted GOP efforts to align itself with the Catholic Church on the issue of religious liberty.
"Yesterday's topic: legitimate rights of RC church," Frum tweeted. "Today's topic: calling women 'sluts.' Good job Rush."
Rick Santorum, one of the Republican presidential contenders seeking to oppose Obama, commented to CNN about Limbaugh's remarks.
"He's being absurd," Santorum said. "But that's, you know, an entertainer can be absurd."
While campaigning in Ohio for the Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney was asked about Limbaugh's comments and steered his answer away from the uproar.
"It's not the language I would have used," Romney said after a campaign event in Cleveland. "But I'm focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today and that's why I'm here talking about jobs in Ohio."
Fluke was given a chance to talk to Congress on Feb. 23, even though lawmakers were on a break and just a few Democratic allies were on hand to cheer her on. The previous week, a Republican-controlled House committee had rejected Democrats' request that she testify on the Obama administration's policy requiring that employees of religion-affiliated institutions have access to health insurance that covers birth control.
Republicans have faulted parts of Obama's health care overhaul as unconstitutional, including an initial requirement, since withdrawn by the president, that contraceptives be covered under the insurance policies of businesses, including those with religious affiliations.
Fluke said that Georgetown does not provide contraception coverage in its student health plan and that contraception can cost a woman more than $3,000 during law school. She spoke of a friend who had an ovary removed because the insurance company wouldn't cover the prescription birth control she needed to stop the growth of cysts.
On Wednesday, Limbaugh unleashed a lengthy and often savage verbal assault on Fluke.
"What does it say about the college coed ... who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex?" Limbaugh said. "It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex."
He went on to suggest that Fluke distribute sex tapes of herself.
"If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it," he said. "We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."
The backlash began quickly and showed no signs of abating as scores of Democratic members of Congress denounced Limbaugh and urged their GOP colleagues to do likewise.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, responded through a spokesman.
"The Speaker obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money off the situation," said Boehner aide Michael Steel.
Later, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the committee that blocked Fluke's original testimony, issued a letter repudiating Limbaugh's comments but also excoriating the Democrats and their supporters.
"I ask that you join me in a broader condemnation of the attacks on people of faith ... and the regrettable personal attacks that have come from individuals on both sides of the issue," Issa wrote to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
Boehner and Issa are among the GOP leaders accused of waging the purported "war on women." The topic has been cited often in recent fundraising pitches by many liberal advocacy groups, and they recently have shown more aggressiveness.
In early February, after a three-day furor, the Susan G. Komen breast cancer charity dropped plans to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood, a leading abortion provider. And more recently, after incurring protests and ridicule, Republican politicians in Virginia backed away from a bill that would have required invasive vaginal ultrasounds as a pre-condition for many abortions.
Amid this controversy, polls show that Obama's support among women has been increasing.
At Georgetown, more than 130 faculty members signed a letter praising Fluke for her "grace and strength" and condemning Limbaugh's remarks. The university president, John J. DeGioia, did likewise.
He said Limbaugh and others responded to Fluke "with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student."
On Thursday, aware of the firestorm he had ignited, Limbaugh was unapologetic.
"I think this is hilarious, absolutely hilarious," he said on his show. "The left has been thrown into an outright conniption fit!"
On Friday, still defiant, Limbaugh scoffed at the concept of a conservative "war on women."
"Amazingly, when there is the slightest bit of opposition to this new welfare entitlement being created, then all of a sudden we hate women! We want 'em barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen," he said. "And now, at the end of this week, I am the person that the women of America are to fear the most."
Fluke, in Washington, issued a statement expressing gratitude for the support she's received.
"No woman deserves to be disrespected in this manner. This language is an attack on all women, and has been used throughout history to silence our voices," she said.
"The millions of American women who have and will continue to speak out in support of women's health care and access to contraception prove that we will not be silenced."
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