Double Standard Rewind: Nancy Reagan's Astrologer vs. Hillary's White House Chats with the Dead

In May of 1988, the national media played up revelations from former Reagan chief of staff Donald Regan’s memoir For The Record that Nancy Reagan had employed an astrologer named Joan Quigley to advise her on her husband’s schedule after he was shot.

In the May 16, 1988 issue of Newsweek, George Hackett and Eleanor Clift allowed Mrs. Reagan's press secretary, Elaine Crispen, to ask: "If she could get a little comfort and consolation from astrology, why not?" But they also underlined media adoration of the story: “Reporters flocked to the story like New Agers to a Shirley MacLaine seminar. Editorial writers quickly made light of ‘The Dipper’ and ‘Bonzo Rising.’ ‘I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it entirely comforting that the man with one hand on The Button has the other on a crystal ball,’ wrote Tom Teepen of the Atlanta Constitution.

They also forwarded other spins: "Scientists showed less tolerance for the President's participation in what they consider medieval superstition. `How can you control a science budget of billions of dollars when you believe in nonsense of this magnitude?,' says James Kaler, professor of astronomy at the University of Illinois." Hackett and Clift added: "Criticism also rumbled from fundamentalists, who liken astrology to Satan worship. `This is the last straw for a lot of religious people who treated Reagan as their political savior,' said conservative columnist and former Moral Majority vice president Cal Thomas."    

In a separate article, Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, and Eleanor Clift concluded that “By some lights, this administration is getting exactly what it deserves. Besides hiring so many people who shared a common interest in cashing in on their time in government, Reagan has never sent a signal that there’s a price to be paid for disloyalty.”

On their quotes-of-the week page, Newsweek carried a quote from New Jersey astrologer Mary Alice: “The President’s sign is Aquarius, and that sign rules astrology. They’re reformers, pioneers, the sign of the unusual. They sually have pointy ears like Martians or outer space creatures.” They also carried three political cartoons exploiting the scandal, including one by Don Wright with Mrs. Reagan ordering it was time to “sacrifice the goat, singe the chickens, and pound the lizard to powder!”

On ABC’s World News Tonight, Peter Jennings began by joking, “If today is your birthday, your horoscope says ths month should be emotionally varied and your problems seem to involve communication.” But he added that “the White House will not take the Regan book lying down” and “Mrs. Reagan is not easily deterred.” Sam Donaldson followed with a straightforward report that quoted both a Reaganite and a mocking critic. "This new, unflattering portrait of the First Family is producing new, often humorous, unfavorable public reaction which political opponents are clearly savoring.... Reagan loyalists are incensed....Reporters like Helen Thomas are just glad to be informed." Donaldson concluded by emphasizing this story had serious political repercussions: “Presidents and their wives look to their place in history, and to the Reagans, Regan’s book doesn’t help.”

But Then Came Hillary's Seance

But the liberal media offered a different take on flakes in June of 1996. Reporter Bob Woodward promoted his new book The Choice with a colorful anecdote of Hillary Clinton, under the guidance of psychic Jean Houston, speaking in the White House solarium to Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. Woodward reported the friendship clicked when Houston said Hillary "was reversing thousands of years of expectation, and was there upfront, probably more than virtually any woman in human history -- apart from Joan of Arc."

On ABC, anchor Peter Jennings sounded very different with Hillary in the cross hairs. He began by belittling the seance story as beneath real journalists: “Mrs. Clinton is all over the headlines today and it is all because of a new book on politics over which some of the tabloids, particularly, are having a field day. In the book, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post writes that Mrs. Clinton, apparently as an exercise, conducted some imaginary conversations with , among others, Eleanor Roosevelt. Some flap.”

Unlike Donaldson’s balanced 1988 story, ABC reporter Jim Wooten in 1996 offered only one side: Hillary Clinton’s. In the story he quoted Hillary, Clinton aide Leon Panetta, and Hillary’s guru: “Such role-playing conversations are traditional counseling techniques, and Ms. Houston describes Mrs. Clinton as beleaguered, in pain, and seeking help.” Wooten ended by pleading with the audience for sympathy: “The unwritten subtext here, of course, is that even here at the end of the 20th century there is a political price to be paid for those in public life who seek help for their private problems.”

Jennings and Wooten couldn’t include any Hillary critic who might suggest the First Lady was being played by a woman clearly massaging her ego by comparing her to Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt.

CNN correspondent Kathleen Koch also unloaded the classic Clinton spin, that any scandal making Hillary look terrible was actually a positive, that it made her look more vulnerable and human: “Though somewhat of an embarrassment, some believe this psychic cloud may have a silver lining. It could soften Hillary Rodham Clinton's image as a behind-the-scenes power player by revealing a vulnerability few ever see.”

Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas acknowledged the Nancy Reagan parallels of Hillary's psychic friends, but countered critics and comedians July 1 in a story headlined “Hillary’s Other Side: As a new book links her to a spiritual guru, new investigations will test the First Lady’s fortitude as never before.” She turned to her guru only after being “discouraged and wounded by the failulre of health-care reform and the GOP rout in the ‘94 elections.”

Inevitably, Hillary's solarium seances will be mockingly compared to Nancy Reagan's astrology...Still, the joking is bound to exaggerate the depths of the First Lady's psychic revelation. As [book author Bob] Woodward's account makes clear, Mrs. Clinton was only imagining what it would be like to talk with Eleanor Roosevelt and Gandhi, not literally trying to 'channel' the spirits of the dead.

A long-time searcher for spiritual meaning, Mrs. Clinton had conjured conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt long before she met Dr. Houston. Mrs Clinton is not even the first First Lady to dabble in psychics or mediums: the wives of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding all tried, in one way or another, to communicate beyond the grave. Unlike Nancy Reagan, Hillary never tried to use psychic powers to influence her husband.

Then Thomas really laid it on the poor-Hillary goo, speaking for “many women” [read: feminist women] who want to protect Mrs. Clinton’s image, even presented her as an actual Joan of Arc:

And to many women, Hillary Clinton is not a cold-eyed conspirator but a martyr. Last week, 1,200 professional women clambered into a $250,000 fundraiser for the Democratic Party in Boston to see Hillary speak. Women teetered on high heels standing on precarious plastic folding chairs to catch a glimpse of the First Lady as she worked the crowd. Is there anything to Whitewater? “Noooo, she's just being bashed by the press,” said Joan McGrath, a retired telephone worker. Why? “A lot of people don't like a strong woman.” To voters like McGrath, Hillary looks just the way she does to her philosopher friend, Dr. Houston -- as a Joan of Arc figure, persecuted for her righteous crusade.

As Thomas presented Hillary as popular in ultraliberal Boston, the June 21, 1996 Boston Herald account of the fundraiser presented a less than popular figure. Reporter Joe Sciacca quoted a Democratic operative: "They couldn't give tickets away. A lot of people got [free tickets]. Even the applause lines were off. A lot of people are getting concerned." Thomas told me back then:  "Our reporter Martha Brant was there and saw it first-hand. They certainly were enthusiastic Hillary-lovers at this lunch...I don't think the point's negated if they had difficulty selling tickets."

This is not the spin Newsweek gave the Nancy Reagan story. She was an embarrassment to the Christians in politics. Newsweek failed to try these lines of attack on Mrs. Clinton's Methodist commitments. (It could have been done: Washington Times reporter Julia Duin did interview several disappointed Methodist theologians and evangelicals -- and some Methodist defenders -- on June 25 of that year).

But that might have clashed with Newsweek religion reporter Kenneth Woodward's October 31, 1994 verdict that "Hillary Rodham Clinton is as pious as she is political. Methodism, for her, is not just a church but an extended family of faith that defines her horizons. If the Kennedy era was Camelot and the Reagan White House a ranchero on the Potomac, the Clinton presidency in the figure of its formidable First Lady is Washington’s Methodist Moment."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis