Was Ashley Judd's Rape Comment Real?

A heated op-ed from a Judd advisor on Monday suggests a report by Howard Fineman — on Judd's apparent comparison between challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell and enduring sexual assault at a private dinner — is fabricated. Here's what Fineman has to say about a kind of would-be Todd Akin-style moment that never was, and what it says about the state of 2014.

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One of the strangest scoops to emerge during the dragged-out speculation of Ashley Judd's potential Senate run — which the actress/philanthropist ultimately decided against last week — was Judd's apparent comparison between challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell and enduring sexual assault, a kind of would-be Todd Akin-style moment that never was. On March 9, more than two weeks before Judd declined to enter the fray, Howard Fineman at The Huffington Post relayed the following anecdote, from a private dinner hosted by Kentucky philanthropist Christy Brown, which supposedly indicated that Judd intended to run:

Judd made her intentions clear at a private dinner last month at Brown's Louisville home. Asked if she was tough enough to take on McConnell and the GOP national attack machine, Judd reportedly answered, “I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.”

The comment immediately circulated in the political blogosphere, and while it never really rose above partisan media, in part because the comment was merely repeated to Fineman instead of captured on video or secretly taped, it nevertheless hobbled the case for a Judd senatorship. Judd was already under attack by seasoned political operatives, and appeared to be losing control of her campaign's messaging...before the campaign even began.

According to an op-ed by Judd advisor Jonathan Miller published today at HuffPo rival The Daily Beast, however, the entire anecdote was fabricated, somehow concocted by a cabal of Kentucky Democrats in order to oust Judd from running. Describing the anecdote as "egregious disinformation," Miller writes, "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."

That's a pretty harsh charge leveled by a pretty biased source from inside a now pretty old-news story against Fineman, a decorated journalist (inside and out of Kentucky) who currently serves as Editorial Director at The Huffington Post, which closely tracked the preliminary movements of the Kentucky race. It also characterizes the incessant nastiness that pervaded discussion about Judd's political ambition, which inspired a platoon of conservative journalists and operatives to dig for dirt, however inconsequential, on Judd's past.

So who's right? Did Ashley Judd actually compare being raped to running against McConnell?

"I doubled checked with my source, and I stand by the quote and the story," Fineman told The Atlantic Wire over email. Fineman clarified that Judd didn't announce this comment to the rest of the dinner's guests, only his source.

"I don't know who else heard it," Fineman continued. "This [source] was a Judd supporter, by the way. The person told Judd what a tough and nasty campaigner McConnell was, and that is how Judd answered." That could explain why Miller "never heard [Judd] say anything remotely like that," in that Judd wasn't speaking to everyone present when she said it.

Fineman admitted that his report was ambiguous about Judd's delivery of the quote. "It was not in an event-wide moment, I don't think, but I didn't say it was," he said. "The wording in the piece is ambiguous, though, and for that I apologize."

It's unclear, in any case, why Miller called out Fineman's report specifically. According to Miller himself, Judd "religiously avoided reading news coverage as she engaged in her studious, deliberate decision-making process" about whether or not to run. But Fineman's reporting may have also led to national skepticism based on influential Kentucky Democrats not exactly coming out in support of her to Fineman.

In the same March 9 dispatch containing Judd's apparent rape comment, he reported that state Democrats were less than hopeful that Judd would be able to surmount McConnell's aggressive campaign apparatus — thus highlighting Judd's weak reputation in her own party at the precise moment she needed, and was seeking, that party's support. It was weirdly friendly-seeming fire from a site that has leaned liberal despite reporting from veterans like Fineman, in a potential race already under fire from The Daily Callers and National Reviews of the world, who you would think would be the ones looking for some sort of reverse "legitimate rape" gaffe to bring the whole campaign crumbling down.

Ultimately, Fineman may have just benefitted from deep access to Kentucky's political establishment. He printed less-than-encouraging comments from former Kentucky Senator Wendell H. Ford, described by Fineman as "the godfather of the Democratic Party in Kentucky," about Judd's potential run. ("She could always change her mind," Ford told Fineman.) And later, in a report published on March 28, Fineman suggested that Ford convinced Judd to withdraw her name from consideration.

The content of Judd's comment — including its tenuous rebuttal, furnished not by Judd but one of her advisors — is a fitting end to the entire saga of Judd's abandoned career in politics. American political culture would never allow Judd to be as eccentric or outspoken — and, at times, provocative and controversial — as she wanted to be, both on and off the record. In the end, that culture wrote the story of Judd's career long before she could write it herself. But the Kentucky campaign isn't going away — it could be one of the biggest money races of the mid-terms. Just without one potential scandal involving one very big star.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.