Gipper the Ripper?

The leading lights of the journalistic right, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard, are beside themselves over the nation’s lackadaisical response to Juanita Broaddrick’s charge that Bill Clinton raped her two decades ago. In a Weekly Standard lead editorial, Executive Editor Fred Barnes writes,“The accused … is now the president of the United States. … Will he get away with what no other American could get away with–not having to answer the accusation directly?”

No other American? Almost eight years ago, an American of great repute ducked a much-publicized rape rap without answering the accusation directly–and the press quickly abandoned the story.

In Kitty Kelley’s 1991 book Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, actress Selene Walters claims that Ronald Reagan forced her to have sex with him in the early ‘50s. According to the book, Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, met Walters in a Hollywood nightclub. He asked for her address, and she gave it to him. Later at 3 a.m., he arrived unexpectedly at Walters’ door and forced himself on her, Kelley alleges.

The press ridiculed this and other passages from Nancy Reagan : the night the Reagans smoked pot with Jack Benny and George Burns; Kelley’s implication that Frank Sinatra boffed Nancy Reagan. But Kelley’s sourcing of the alleged Reagan rape is not much worse than the sourcing of the alleged Clinton rape.

What’s more, People magazine got Walters to repeat the story almost verbatim. Walters denied one key element of Kelley’s version to People–that Reagan forced his way into her apartment–but reaffirmed the rest. It sounds remarkably like Juanita Broaddrick’s story:

“I opened the door,” Walters told the magazine. “Then it was the battle of the couch. I was fighting him. I didn’t want him to make love to me. He’s a very big man, and he just had his way. Date rape? No, God, no, that’s [Kelley’s] phrase. I didn’t have a chance to have a date with him.”

Walters–like Broaddrick–did not file charges. And Kelley maintains that Walters shared contemporaneous accounts of the encounter with friends.

Ronald Reagan successfully stonewalled the Walters story when the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times picked it up briefly in April 1991. And remember, this was three and a half years before his Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. The weekend the book was released, a reporter asked Reagan for a comment about it as he entered church. “I don’t think a church would be the proper place to use the word I would have to use in discussing that,” he said. Not exactly a denial.

Chatterbox doubts that Reagan raped Walters. But where was Fred Barnes and where was the WallStreet Journal back in 1991? Were they outraged by Reagan’s refusal to answer the rape charge directly?Were they accusing the press of partisan bias for refusing to confront the accused? Not exactly. A quick shake of Nexis produces this Barnes appearance on the April 12, 1991, edition of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

“This is National Enquirer journalism,” Barnes said of Kelley’s book. “It’s the kind where you look for everything, you vacuum up everything that’s unfavorable, use all of it, whether it’s rumor, fact, innuendo, hearsay, use all it, and don’t let a kind word get in the whole thing.”

Jack Shafer