By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Georgetown University Law Schooler Sandra Fluke may have been able to do something George Soros’ millions, a whole gaggle of Democratic strategists, and Al Franken’s book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, couldn’t do – dethrone the King of Caustic in the court of public opinion. She may have done something else, too. Something truly unexpected in red-blue battlefield where American politics is played. The feisty feminist may have just made political discourse civil again.
On February 29, 2012 (appropriately a leap year for such a pratfall), Limbaugh started the firestorm calling the 30-year-old women’s rights advocate a “slut” and “prostitute” after her testimony before an unofficial congressional committee in support of mandated private health insurance coverage for contraceptives. Fluke’s crime: calling for coverage of birth control drugs to treat her friend’s polycystic ovarian syndrome. Prescriptions for pain from ovarian cysts is just one of many noncontraceptive uses of birth control denied women when their employers refuse to include contraception services in their health care plans because of moral or religious reasons.
Refusing to accept Ms. Fluke’s motivation, Rush doubled down a day later offering what he termed was a “compromise” to contraception coverage: purchasing “all the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as possible”. He continued that he “[ran] some numbers” on contraception costs and arguing that contraception coverage was “flat-out thievery” that would force taxpayers to pay to “satisfy the sexual habits of female law students at Georgetown”.
The rant was unrelenting: “So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch,” bellowed the wounded giant. He then added, “Who bought your condoms in junior high? Who bought your condoms in the sixth grade? Or your contraception. Who bought your contraceptive pills in high school?” He described Fluke as “a woman who is happily presenting herself as an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her life woman. She wants all the sex in the world whenever she wants it, all the time, no consequences.” By some counts, he attacked Ms. Fluke 46 more times that day and throughout the broadcast.
By March 2nd, Rush still wasn’t done with Ms. Fluke. Limbaugh said that requiring insurance companies to cover contraception is “no different than if somebody knocked on my door that I don’t know and said, ‘You know what? I’m out of money. I can’t afford birth-control pills, and I’m supposed to have sex with three guys tonight.’ ” He added “she’s having so much sex she can’t pay for it and wants a new welfare program to pay for it,” he’d be “embarrassed” and “disconnect the phone”, “go into hiding”, and “hope the media didn’t find me”. He continued later, “Oh! Does she have more boyfriends? They’re lined up around the block. They would have been in my day.”
Criticizing someone for an out-of-control libido must have caused even hardline – but memory-equipped – “ditto-heads” to blush. In March of 2009, Limbaugh was reportedly detained by US Customs officials for three hours with 29 tablets of the male sexual enhancement drug, Viagra, in his suitcase. Limbaugh’s Gulfstream IV jet (courtesy of Premier Radio Networks) with Rush and 4 male buddies aboard had landed in Palm Beach, Florida, fresh off a
stag party vacation in the Dominican Republic. Nothing newsworthy there except that the Viagra prescription was not in the radio celebrity’s name. Instead, it was “labeled as being issued to the physician rather than Mr. Limbaugh for privacy purposes,” according to Roy Black, Limbaugh’s attorney. For his part, Limbaugh was nonplussed and in a bragging mood about his sexual proclivities south of the border. “I had a great time in the Dominican Republic. Wish I could tell you about it,” he beamed.
Such arrogance all but guaranteed a backlash from both Right and Left labeling Limbaugh both a bully and misogynistic. Advertisers began to hear rumblings from social media that boycotts were planned and got antsy, especially in view of the size of the potentially offended demographic involved. Laurie Cantillo, Rush’s old boss at WABC (770 AM) explained that,
It is perceived by many as an attack on young women. … Women 25-54 is the prize demo for most advertisers, and Rush’s remarks strike at the heart of the audience they’re trying to reach….
Reagan speech writer, Peggy Noonan, called Limbaugh’s remarks “crude, rude, even piggish,” and “deeply destructive and unhelpful.” House Speaker John Boehner called the remarks, “Inappropriate.’ Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), the party’s 2008 candidate for president, said Limbaugh’s statements were unacceptable “in every way” and “should be condemned” by people across the political spectrum. Even the bow-tied ambassador from the Country Club Right, George Will, clucked that Boehner’s remarks were more suited to a faux pas of using a salad fork for the entrée and lamented that “… it was depressing because what it indicates is that the Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh.” Duh! Now how about some coffee to really wake you up, George.
If the right was disappointed, the left was outraged. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), wrote that “Rush Limbaugh, the voice of the ultra-conservative right, issued one of the most vile tirades against women I’ve ever heard.” House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, called the diatribe, “obnoxious” and “vicious and inappropriate attacks.” Seventy-five Democratic Party lawmakers signed a letter expressing outrage at the remarks labeling them as “sexually charged, patently offensive, obscene”, “indecent” and “an abuse of public airwaves.” NOW described Limbaugh as a “bigoted bully” and a speaker of “hate-filled speech” for trying to “shame a young woman for coming forward, speaking her mind and standing up for women’s rights.”
An apology was inevitable if not for ethical reasons then for financial ones. On March 1st, Rush issued the first of what critics would call his non-apologies. Grasping the golden EIB microphone on March 3rd, the Right’s most quoted standard-bearer bit the bullet saying:
For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone’s bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level. My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.
Too little, too late. And besides, Fluke was not in an accepting mood. Talking with Barbara Walters on ABC’s The View, Fluke said,
I don’t think that a statement like this, saying that his choice of words was not the best, changes anything, and especially when that statement is issued when he’s under significant pressure from his sponsors who have begun to pull their support from the show. I think any woman who has ever been called these types of names is [shocked] at first. But then I tried to see this for what it is, and I believe that what it is, is an attempt to silence me, to silence the millions of women and the men who support them who have been speaking out about this issue and conveying that contraception is an important healthcare need that they need to have met in an affordable, accessible way.
Advertisers were not in a forgiving mood either. ThinkProgress.com confirmed that 141 — not 8 as once reported – sponsors have been identified in an internal Premier Radio Networks memorandum as declaring that their ad spots are to be run on controversy-free radio programming. Put another way, on Rush-free programming. The feminist trio of Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Robin Morgan called for the FCC to ban Rush, and defender of all things woman, Gloria Allred, wanted the rotund pundit prosecuted.
Oh, there were some Rush defenders like actress/activist, Patricia Heaton, and the usual chorus of wacky Michelle Malkin, educationally-challenged Sean Hannity, and Fox’ s trotted-out lawyer of the Right turned pundit, Megyn Kelly, but they were quickly caught up in the deluge and slinked away with lukewarm Twitter apologies (Heaton) or a quick change of topic (all the rest).
While extreme positions are easily dismissed as preposterous, they have the effect of focusing the debate on the reasonable propositions and then drawing a consensus as to the right course of action. It ‘s the case of two equally matched but exhausted palookas in a bar fight who are simply tired of the tussle that leads to no result and makes both look weak. The fight may have gone out of both sides. Also the Law of Unintended Consequences may be at work, too. Speaking on msnbc’s Morning Joe, McCain’s 2008 campaign chief, Steven Schmidt, was asked to comment on McCain’s combative running mate Sarah Palin, the subject of HBO’s new production, Game Change. He made an interesting comment about the Hockey-Mom-Turned-Rogue, and in doing so, about the system the got her there in the first place. ” She has become a person who I think is filled with grievance, filled with anger who has a divisive message for the national stage when we need leaders in both parties to have a unifying message. . . .” Schmidt seemed to be echoing Barbara Bush’s comments made a few days earlier at SMU about the 2012 campaign, “I hate that people think compromise is a dirty word. It’s not a dirty word,” the former First Lady emphasized.
The same sentiment was expressed by outgoing Republican Senator, Olympia Snow:
The great challenge is to create a system that gives our elected officials reasons to look past their differences and find common ground …. In a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good. That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future.
For change to occur, our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building — but also a political reward for following these tenets. That reward will be real only if the people demonstrate their desire for politicians to come together after the planks in their respective party platforms do not prevail.
Snow, long regarded as one of the moderate Republicans in the Senate who was willing to work with the opposition in promoting the public good, left the institution in disgust at what she called the “corrosive trend of winner-take-all politics.” When the beneficiaries of the Lee Atwater school of politics think things have gone too far, things have really gone too far.
Other signs also point to an increase of civility in the wake of the across-the-board outrage at Limbaugh.
Following the lambasting of Ms. Fluke by Limbaugh, Georgetown President Jack DeGioia stepped up to defend his student’s right to speak and called for civility. The leader of the Jesuit school — that officially opposes the mandatory contraception services – eloquently laid out the case for letting the opposiong view be aired. In a letter to the school, DeGioia wrote, “[Ms. Fluke] provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people. One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression.” He branded the reaction of Limbaugh and some other commentators as “misogynistic, vitriolic and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.”
And here’s what Carbonite CEO David Friend said about this company’s decision to pull its ads from the Limbaugh show.
No one with daughters the age of Sandra Fluke, and I have two, could possibly abide the insult and abuse heaped upon this courageous and well-intentioned young lady. Mr. Limbaugh, with his highly personal attacks on Miss Fluke, overstepped any reasonable bounds of decency. Even though Mr. Limbaugh has now issued an apology, we have nonetheless decided to withdraw our advertising from his show. We hope that our action, along with the other advertisers who have already withdrawn their ads, will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse.
Friend made the statement in the face of a threat by investors to leave the Inc. 500 company if he abandoned the ad campaign on the Limabugh show. Sensa Weight Loss, another show sponsor, tweeted: “Rush Limbaugh’s comments are not in line with SENSA values so we are pulling our ads indefinitely which should be down in the next couple days.’ That tweet was mimicked by VitaCost, another longtime sponsor. GEICO Insurance issued a strongly worded statement that it was not a Rush Limbaugh sponsor and never would be one, “We do not place ads on Rush’s program. We do not sponsor the show. We have repeatedly alerted our partners that our ads are never to run during his program. If this does not change rest assured that we will remove all advertising from this radio network.” Tell us what you really think there, Caveman! JC Penney immediately followed suit on Twitter.
This incident bears striking resemblance to the 2007 scandal when long-time shock-jock Don Imus called the Rutger’s Women’s basketball team “a bunch of nappy headed hoes.” Though known for his off-the-wall commentary, Imus was not insulated when sponsors and fellow performers at CBS demanded that his show be cancelled. Eight days after uttering the fateful words, it was. CBS later settled with the radio host but the public sentiment was clear.
The point to be made is that when Wall Street, Congressional Republicans, Congressional Democrats, and the media all agree that civility should improve, civility will improve. It seems now that they have.
Ironically, perhaps the first step in fostering toleration is in politely refusing to tolerate the intolerant. Sandra Fluke taught us that important lesson by simply standing up for what she believed was right when it mattered. Real persuasion starts in speaking your truth humbly, compassionately, knowledgeably, and honestly. That may be the true antidote to the politics of haughtiness and hate. Sandra Fluke reminded us of that, too, with every word.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger