“We’d like to have you join us this afternoon for a discussion on the Ashley Judd campaign,” the young national talk show producer chirped into my phone. ”We understand that she will be announcing her candidacy within the next 24 hours.”
“I’d love to join you,” I responded. A recovering politician never turns down 15 minutes.) “But, uh, I’m pretty sure, uh, she’s not announcing.”
I looked over to the left side of my desk, at the draft exploratory committee papers that Ashley had asked me to prepare, still missing several items that I had requested from her.
“Oh, no,” the producer responded. “Our reporter has it on good authority from Ashley’s people that an announcement is imminent.”
I thought I was one of “Ashley’s people.”
Before I appeared on the show, I asked another of Ashley’s volunteer advisers, whom I knew had spoken to her that morning.
“Not true. Just another fabrication.”
The past several weeks had seemed like a dizzying blur of false testimony, as the national media seized any morsel of news or gossip to sate its ravenous appetite for Ashley Judd stories. As the actress contemplated whether to move back to Kentucky and challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, I was alternating with Congressman John Yarmuth as witness for the defense against a steady stream of salacious recriminations.
The prosecution was assisted in nearly every article by the same handful of Democratic professionals railing against the prospects of a Judd candidacy, promoting instead the potential Senate candidacy of Kentucky’s young Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes. While many may legitimately believe that Grimes is the better candidate, many of those who have been quoted impugning Judd, or have done so on background, also have personal motives: some stand to profit from a Grimes campaign, some may have been trying to redress perceived “disses” by the actress, and some may be aiming to keep Grimes out of the 2015 gubernatorial race, where she could undermine their preferred candidates.
But at least this cast of characters gave their identities, if not their agendas. The most egregious disinformation came from entirely anonymous sources.
Such was the charge that Judd told a group of supporters at a private dinner in Louisville, “I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.” The actress’ apparent flippant comparison of a political campaign to sexual assault spread like Ebola across the Internet, leading some to classify Judd as the Democratic version of Todd Akin.
The problem is, it never happened.
I was at that dinner and never heard her say anything remotely like that. What’s more, such a statement would have been completely inconsistent with the way I’ve heard Ashley discuss her horrifying experiences as the youthful victim of sexual assault—how they defined her in adulthood; how they propelled her to champion women’s empowerment across the globe.
The second Big Lie involved the Big Dog. The national media began to press the narrative that former President Bill Clinton was trying to force Judd out of the race in favor of a Grimes candidacy because Grimes’ father, Jerry Lundergan, had been a longtime Clinton supporter and had helped Clinton win Kentucky twice in the 90s.
There’s no doubt that the whole Lundergan family had developed a deep bond with the Clintons ever since Jerry emerged as Hillary’s loudest Kentucky supporter in her 2008 presidential bid. And just because, as a Clinton campaign staffer in 1992 and an administration official in 1996, I don’t remember Lundergan’s involvement, it doesn’t mean he didn’t help the former President win Kentucky on those occasions.
But I can personally attest to one prominent Kentucky supporter of the Clinton/Gore reelection campaign: Ashley Judd. Indeed, that’s where we first met. And Judd’s close relationship with both Clintons continued through Hillary’s 2008 bid, when the actress campaigned with Bill in Texas. He later returned the favor by providing the cover squib for Judd’s 2011 memoir, All That is Bitter and Sweet. So it’s not surprising that Ashley informed our Louisville dinner group that the former President had privately urged her to run against McConnell, offering his complete support for her prospective campaign.
ABC News ultimately cleared up the record, but by then the narrative was set—the most popular national figure for Kentucky Democrats was opposed to a Judd candidacy, providing further oxygen to the anti-Ashley conflagration.
Now, I don’t pretend that Ashley Judd was a perfect candidate, or that there weren’t a significant number of Democratic insiders who opposed her candidacy. But in her early calls, she was winning over many skeptics, including the incumbent Governor and the House Speaker, the latter being the most prominent politician from Appalachia, the region purportedly most hostile to the actress because of her public opposition toward a controversial coal mining technique.
Nor do I believe that the negative press was the primary force behind Judd’s decision not to run: The actress religiously avoided reading news coverage as she engaged in her studious, deliberate decision-making process.
But pity Alison Lundergan Grimes, the primary beneficiary of the anti-Ashley putsch. Like most Judd supporters, I hope Grimes runs, defeats McConnell and enjoys a long and successful career in Washington. But there are two other equally plausible—if not more probable—scenarios: One, Grimes gets drubbed by McConnell, whose ruthless, take-no-prisoners campaigns have ended the political careers of four of his last five opponents. Or two, Grimes opts out of the race for another campaign, leaving McConnell with no serious opponent.
All the while, I imagine McConnell sitting back, watching the antics with his sly, tight grin, enjoying how a small group of Democrats duped the so-called liberal media into creating the false narrative of a Democratic civil war. Only a master politician could get so damn lucky.
Related from The Daily Beast