The culture wars have gotten intimate. For months, female voters of both parties have been stirred up by political battles over such issues as funding for birth control and a proposal to make transvaginal ultrasound a prerequisite for abortion—and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell has been asking the provocative questions. First, she interviewed Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, after the group decided to defund Planned Parenthood (a position Komen later reversed). Next, Mitchell was moments from interviewing Sandra Fluke when the Georgetown law student—who had been labeled a slut by Rush Limbaugh for wanting health plans to pay for contraception—received a call of encouragement from President Obama. And Republican megadonor Foster Friess was on air with Mitchell when he remarked that birth control was no big deal because in his day a Bayer aspirin between the knees did the trick. Christina Bellantoni asks Mitchell what she makes of it all.
Q: What is happening in America?
A: We seem to be relitigating the question of contraception, which has not been an open issue since the 1960s. It has been a consciousness-raising experience for a generation of young women who always took these rights for granted. I have never had so many women approach me—it just seems to have galvanized them.
Q: How do you see your role in this debate?
A: When Nancy Brinker came on, I expected she would have an explanation [for why she advocated halting funding of Planned Parenthood], and I wanted her to hear through me the voices of women who felt betrayed by the policy shift. When she didn’t seem to have a strong answer, it came unwound. The issue reached critical mass then and there.
Sandra Fluke arrived on the set after talking to the president in the green room. She was very nervous because the White House had told her initially not to talk about the president’s call. But my producer called the White House, and they said, It’s OK, you can confirm that this conversation took place. So that put her at ease. She was really emotional about the fact that the President of the United States not only had called her but had said that her parents would be very proud of her. The vulnerability of this woman who had unwillingly, just by standing up, become part of a national debate where her reputation was being sullied by a bully with a megaphone—that just really touched me.
Q: Did you have any idea Foster Friess was capable of saying something like he did when you booked him?
A: Not at all. I had no idea what his views were on social issues, nor what his sense of humor is, as outdated as it may seem. As he said it, my first instinct was, Is this man really saying that, to me? Is he joking? It was live television; it didn’t register at first. And then as I absorbed it, I realized that he was on a different planet from where most women—and most men—are in America today. I was taken aback. And it seemed rude, and there’s a side of me that still can be shocked. I guess I should have said, “What do you mean? How dare you?” but that didn’t occur to me.
Q: Why is all this happening now?
A: The electorate is far more conservative than in the past, and issues go viral so immediately that everyone gets swept up in whatever the latest controversy is. What’s striking is that we’re not discussing entitlements, the deficit and the explosion of health care costs, and we’re not really discussing Iran and Syria and Afghanistan.
Q: Is this a one-party issue?
A: I don’t think so. I think that once we get to the general election, we are going to find a much larger cohort of independent and Republican women [who are concerned about this issue]. The women who live in the suburbs and work every day inside and outside the home don’t want to be told what to do with their bodies. They just want to know that they can get mammograms and Pap smears and preventive health care. Because of the economy, more and more women are holding down multiple jobs in addition to raising families. There are more single moms now, and they don’t want to have some male politician telling them what they can do when it comes to contraception. Gender trumps politics here.
Q: Have you ever seen anything like this?
A: It takes me back to the Clarence Thomas hearings. Some of the most liberal senators behaved miserably because they did not stand up for fair treatment of Anita Hill. I remember when the hearings ended and I was wrapping it up from the Senate. Tom Brokaw said, “What have we learned?” and I said something like, “I think we learned that the United States Senate is the last plantation.” I can’t believe I said that on network television!
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