Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Slurs only bolster Sandra Fluke's cause

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Tue September 11, 2012
Sandra Fluke speaks at the Democratic National Convention. The conservative blogosphere went mad, David Frum says.
Sandra Fluke speaks at the Democratic National Convention. The conservative blogosphere went mad, David Frum says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Sandra Fluke's speech at DNC sparked the most conservative outrage
  • It goes back to Rush Limbaugh's sexualized, brutal attacks on her after testimony, he says
  • Frum: Fluke wanted her college insurance to cover birth control, funded by tuition, not taxes
  • Frum: Disagree that religious schools include birth control in insurance, but don't revile her

Editor's note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots."

(CNN) -- Of all the speeches at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, few offended conservative listeners more than the speech by Sandra Fluke.

There are plenty of good reasons to be annoyed. From the conservative point of view, Fluke is on the wrong side of a battle over religious freedom. Back in March, she testified in favor of a proposed Obama administration rule that would require Catholic institutions, like her own Georgetown University law school, to reject the teaching of their church and cover contraception in their university health plans -- plans not funded by taxpayers, by the way, but by tuition and other university revenues.

Now here Fluke was again, on the national stage, warning that a vote for the Republican ticket in 2012 was a vote for "an America in which you have a new vice president who co-sponsored a bill that would allow pregnant women to die preventable deaths in our emergency rooms. An America in which states humiliate women by forcing us to endure invasive ultrasounds we don't want and our doctors say we don't need.

David Frum
David Frum

"An America in which access to birth control is controlled by people who will never use it; in which politicians redefine rape so survivors are victimized all over again; in which someone decides which domestic violence victims deserve help, and which don't."

Shortly before Fluke spoke, conservative commentator Ann Coulter had tweeted: "Bill Clinton just impregnated Sandra Fluke backstage."

Watch Sandra Fluke's full speech
Fluke: GOP 'out of step' with women
Sandra Fluke campaigns for Obama
Romney and GOP under attack at DNC

That was nothing compared with the outpouring of fury during and after the speech.

Stephen Kruiser, who hosts on the conservative Internet video site PJTV and appears on Fox's "Red Eye," tweeted mid-speech: "Tricky camera work to keep TV audience from seeing (David) Axelrod's hand up Fluke's a**."

The next day, National Review columnist and sometime Rush Limbaugh guest host Mark Steyn scoffed: "Sandra Fluke has been blessed with a quarter-million dollars of elite education ... and she has concluded that the most urgent need facing the Brokest Nation in History is for someone else to pay for the contraception of 30-year-old children."

Sandra Fluke: Slurs won't silence women

James Taranto, columnist for the online edition of The Wall Street Journal, was nearly equally scathing. "Seriously, the party of Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman chose to showcase someone whose claim to fame is that she demands that somebody else pay for her birth control."

Within 48 hours, the attack had jumped from the conservative media sphere to electoral politics. Campaigning in Addison, Illinois, Republican congressional candidate Joe Walsh erupted: "Think about this, a 31-, 32-year-old law student who has been a student for life, who gets up there in front of a national audience and tells the American people, 'I want America to pay for my contraceptives.' You're kidding me. Go get a job. Go get a job, Sandra Fluke."

There's never any shortage of vitriol in political commentary, but usually it's reserved for the headliners. Yet Fluke provoked more sputtering in five minutes than former President Bill Clinton did in a speech 10 times as long.

Why?

The answer takes us to the events that put Fluke on the stage in Charlotte in the first place: Rush Limbaugh's brutal, sexualized attack on her congressional testimony.

On the day after Fluke spoke, Limbaugh demanded: "What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps."

Limbaugh returned to the subject again and again, escalating his abuse over three consecutive days. "So Miss 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. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."

After three days of this, advertisers began to drop his show -- and Limbaugh was constrained to issue a grudging apology on his website.

"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."

In this grudging half-apology, half-justification, Limbaugh misstated the facts of the case. Taxpayer money was never at issue between Fluke and Georgetown. When Fluke and her fellow students paid tuition to Georgetown, they got health coverage as part of the deal.

At issue in Fluke's congressional hearing were principles of religious freedom -- and the disposition of student health dollars -- but not taxpayer money.

Limbaugh's misstatement had the benefit of permitting him a change of subject -- and a way out of a damaging controversy. And it allowed his friends and supporters to pronounce the matter closed.

Yet somehow it didn't close: not for Fluke, and not for Limbaugh either.

Why this election is so personal

Other male commentators have used belittling, misogynistic language against other women in the public eye. Both Republican and Democratic women have found themselves on the receiving end of condescension and epithets.

But Limbaugh did something different with Fluke: Aggressively and deliberately, over a long span of days, because his own commercial interests require shock and controversy, Limbaugh had promoted Fluke into a totem and martyr. When Democrats later claimed that Republicans "waged war on women," Limbaugh's tirade became Exhibit A -- at least until Rep. Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comment demoted it to second place.

At the time of the tirade, a number of Republican politicians spoke out against Limbaugh. U.S. Sen. Scott Brown called Limbaugh's comments "reprehensible" and former Senate candidate Carly Fiorina condemned them as "insulting."

Yet as time has passed, the regrets faded. An idea was born and grew that somehow Fluke must have provoked what was said of her, must indeed have deserved it.

Erick Erickson of CNN and Red State.com expressed this "she asked for it" view pungently in a March blog post: "Of course Rush Limbaugh was being insulting. He was using it as a tool to highlight just how absurd the Democrats' position is on this. It's what he does and does quite well. And in the process he's exposing a lot of media bias on the issue as people rush out (no pun intended) to make Sandra Fluke a victim of his insults and dance around precisely what is really insulting ? her testimony before congress that American taxpayers should subsidize the sexual habits of Georgetown Law School students because, God forbid, they should stop having sex if they cannot afford the pills themselves."

That mood, an undercurrent until recently, gushed into full view on the night of Fluke's convention speech. If the words "slut" and "prostitute" are not to be used, she must nonetheless be the thing indicated by those not-to-be-used words: a woman whose sexuality is for sale. Because if she's not -- if she's merely a concerned citizen who expressed in a public forum a diverging view of the appropriate relationship between church and state -- then what does that make Limbaugh?

And what does it make those who rallied to defend Limbaugh? Something pretty ugly, right? Which is why it remains today so urgently necessary for so many people to demean and defame this woman.

The correct reply to Fluke is that she is a person intolerant of the religious liberty of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church does good works on a vast national scale -- caring for the sick, teaching children, supporting the homeless -- all to uphold its compassionate doctrines in a harsh world. Once government starts imposing its rules on a church, then it crushes the spirit that leads the church to do its good on the world.

You can say all that without hurling accusations of nymphomania, freeloading and sexual exhibitionism. In fact, omitting such vile insults makes the rebuttal more convincing, not less. But that's not how Rush Limbaugh does it, and he has taught a generation of conservative shock-mongers to do the same or worse.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT