HARRISBURG – “You just have to close your eyes.”
With those words about women and a bill mandating preabortion ultrasounds, Gov. Corbett stepped into a nationwide controversy – and, in the process, got a lesson in social media.
By week’s end, his comments were generating headlines from coast to coast and the video had gone viral. It played over and over on local and national news, along with YouTube, Facebook, and blogs, sparking countless conversations on Twitter under hashtags such as #waronwomen and #closeyoureyes. A petition drive sprang up online, calling for him to apologize.
That, Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said Friday, is unlikely.
Harley said the governor’s comments were “twisted” and taken out of context by “liberal interest groups and, especially, by liberal media outlets.”
There was something to what Harley said. Democratic operatives pounced on the Republican governor’s words. So did outlets such as the Daily Kos, MSNBC, and HuffPost, none of which could be mistaken for conservative.
“This is what they do,” said Harley. “This is what they are good at. They are good at distorting and mischaracterizing comments to gin up their base and raise money.”
On Corbett’s Facebook page, some commenters came to his defense. “Thank you for being pro-life and representing Pennsylvania values,” wrote Andrew Bair, a pro-life activist. “At no point did Corbett say he was for any type of invasive procedure,” wrote Chet Walters of York. “Everybody on this post should be ashamed of themselves for not taking the time to examine the context of what was said.”
But on his and other sites, the governor, who was leaving Saturday on a six-day European trade mission, also came in for derision from women such as Gwen Olitsky, 69, an addiction therapist and grandmother from Havertown.
She called his comments “stupid, thoughtless, and exceptionally hurtful.”
Corbett made his comments during a news conference in the Capitol – a fairly rare occurrence for a governor who does not share his predecessor’s penchant for give-and-take with reporters.
The question at hand was how did Corbett feel about the bill in the state House mandating a preabortion ultrasound test. The bill had been headed for a House vote before criticism erupted over whether it would require a more intrusive vaginal ultrasound.
Its sponsor, Rep. Kathy Rapp (R., Forest), has said the bill would require only external ultrasounds. But medical experts noted that through seven weeks of pregnancy, when about half of abortions occur, detailed images usually require an internal or “transvaginal” probe.
At the news conference, Corbett was asked where he stood on the bill. “Well, we made a statement during the campaign, I wouldn’t change it – as long it’s not obtrusive,” he said.
Pressed on whether asking a woman to look at the ultrasound image went “too far,” he replied:
“I don’t know how you make anybody watch it. OK? Because you just have to close your eyes.” He added that the ultrasound should be “exterior, not interior.”
By week’s end, he was getting what could only be described as a social-media flogging. Olitsky, who said she is a registered independent and did not vote for Corbett, wrote on Facebook, “Can he be impeached?”
“I expect my governor not to be stupid,” she said Friday in an interview, noting that she has four granddaughters and feels “very strongly about having their rights respected and protected.”
This isn’t the first time Corbett’s words have set off a stir. While running for governor in 2010, he was criticized for repeating what he said employers had told him – that many people preferred unemployment benefits to actually working. And days before the 2010 vote, Democrats contended his comments at a Delaware County campaign stop were meant to urge supporters to suppress turnout in Philadelphia. In both instances, Corbett said his words were twisted.
Of course, blurted candor was like a badge of honor for the previous governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, whose controversial and sometimes embarrassing comments often got splashed across front pages. But a large chunk of Rendell’s public career preceded the dawn of social media and the Twittersphere.
For Corbett, political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna said, the key is how he deals with the fallout. He said he believed Corbett’s remarks made it seem as if the governor was making light of a very serious issue.
“Now, they are going to have to figure whether he toughs it out,” said Madonna, “or whether he says, ‘I’m sorry, it was taken out of context, and I didn’t mean to offend anyone.’ “
Contact Angela Couloumbis
at 717-787-5934 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.