WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called a Georgetown Law School student Friday from the Oval Office to offer her his support after radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh tore into her for testifying before Congress that she backed the administration's policy on health care coverage for contraceptives.
The conservative icon called Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" on his show earlier this week and suggested that if she wanted free birth control, she should post sex tapes online "so we can all watch."
The remarks set off a firestorm of controversy, with congressional Democrats and progressive and women's groups demanding that Republicans repudiate Limbaugh's remarks — while fundraising off them. Some groups called for his advertisers to pull their spots, and several did. Mortgage lender Quicken Loans tweeted that "due to continued inflammatory comments — along w/valuable feedback from clients & team members" it was suspending its advertising on Limbaugh's show.
The furor over contraceptives is one that Democrats think will help them in November. The White House embraced it Friday, calling Limbaugh's remarks "reprehensible," "crude" and "inappropriate." Spokesman Jay Carney said Obama wanted to express his support to Fluke as well as his "appreciation for her willingness to stand tall and express her opinion.
"He, like a lot of people, feels that the kinds of personal attacks that have been directed her way are inappropriate. The fact that our political discourse 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 matter of public policy."
With public opinion polls showing wide acceptance of contraceptive health-insurance coverage, the issue has galvanized Democrats, who see Republicans as on the wrong side of an issue that they think will resonate, particularly with young, independent female voters.
Indeed, Republicans, who generally are loath to speak ill of Limbaugh, sought to create some distance. Politico quoted a spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as calling Limbaugh's comments "inappropriate," and presidential candidate Rick Santorum called them "absurd."
Limbaugh, though, sounded less than contrite, telling his critics to "lighten up" and suggesting that Democrats are eager to paint him as a villain. He told his radio audience Friday that he thought he'd been "quite compassionate."
"It's one thing for Obama to call and ask her if she's OK," he said of Fluke at another point in the show. "I'm waiting for Bill Clinton to call her."
Fluke was thrust into the controversy last week when House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California arranged for her to address a Democrat-led panel after House Republicans who held a hearing on Obama's contraceptives health care policy refused to allow Fluke to testify.
Republicans have seized on the president's decision to require employers to cover birth control as an assault on religious freedom. His initial plan would have required all insurance plans nationwide to cover preventive health care for women with no co-payments, including such services as mammograms as well as contraception. It exempted churches from having to provide coverage they oppose, but not other religious-affiliated institutions, such as Roman Catholic hospitals. Obama later yielded and said those institutions' insurers instead would have to supply it.
Fluke told MSNBC that she'd been lambasted by Glenn Beck as well as Limbaugh and that the president told her that her parents should be proud of her.
And, she said, Obama wanted to "make sure I was OK, given some of the colorful attacks."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY