In a move certain to bring even more attention to one of the latest media tempests, President Obama on Friday got on the phone to encourage the Georgetown University law student disparaged by conservative radio superstar Rush Limbaugh with misogynistic epithets.
Sandra Fluke, who is also an activist, was about to appear on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports when she took a phone call from the White House. It was the president. As an emotional Fluke explained once she was in front of the cameras with Mitchell:
FLUKE: "He encouraged me and supported me and thanked me for speaking out about the concerns of American women. And what was really personal for me was that he said to tell my parents that they should be proud. And that meant a lot because Rush Limbaugh questioned whether or not my family should be proud of me."
At the White House news briefing, press secretary Jay Carney explained:
"The president called... because he wanted to offer his support to her. He wanted to express his disappointment that she has been the subject of inappropriate personal attacks and to thank her for exercising her rights as a citizen to speak out on an issue of public policy. And it was a — it was a very good conversation.
REPORTER: Is that all you can tell us about the conversation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I mean, I think so. It wasn't — you know, it was several minutes. They had a very good conversation. I think he, like a lot of people, feels that the kinds of personal attacks that she's — that have been directed her way are inappropriate. It's — the fact that our political discourse is — has become debased in many ways is bad enough. It is worse when it's directed at a private citizen who was simply expressing her views on a — on a — on a matter of public policy.
REPORTER: It is appropriate for Democratic organizations to try to raise money off of the — this attack on her?
MR. CARNEY: I think that I'll leave that to the — whatever organizations might agree with her or sympathize with her. The fact of the matter is the president was expressing his support for her and his disappointment in the kind of attacks that had been leveled at her — to her, and his appreciation for her willingness to, you know, sort of stand tall and express her opinion.
Fluke became embroiled in the controversy over the Obama administration's new policy on contraception and health insurance. It requires employers, including those with religious affiliations like schools and hospitals, to provide birth control at no cost to workers covered by group health insurance.
Catholic bishops, religious groups have complained that the policy violates the conscience of people of faith who oppose birth-control. What makes the policy even worse in some eyes is that some forms of contraception and abortion is blurred.
Supporters of the administration's policy had hoped that Fluke would be allowed to testify at a recent House hearing on the policy. But the GOP-controlled committee refused to let her testify. House Democrats, instead, held a meeting at which she was the star speaker.
All of which eventually led to Limbaugh calling her a "slut" and "prostitute", which, for obvious reasons, set off a firestorm in its own right.
While on a human level the president's phone can be interpreted as an act of kindness, because it was the president, there's also the larger political context of the issue being framed by Democrats as one in which they are the champions of women's health.
It being a general election year and the president counting on getting enough of the women's vote to win re-election, his phone call takes on a bigger meaning.
Comforting someone like Fluke who was targeted by Limbaugh for siding with Obama's contraception policy was the kind of symbolic act that could pay political dividends for the president come November.