Dream Banks, Oz and ESP: the Strange Case of Reagan Rebel Barbara Honegger

updated 09/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Washington's latest silly-season flap was billed as the "Munchkin" versus the "Wizard," but as events unfolded the curiouser and curiouser story of Barbara Honegger more closely resembled Alice in Wonderland than The Wizard of Oz.

The opening gambit was a stunner: Honegger, 35, a Justice Department assistant, denounced as a "sham" President Reagan's project to eliminate sex discrimination from federal laws and regulations. Next day, after resigning her $37,000 post, she lashed out at a variety of Reagan's positions on women's issues, including his anti-abortion stance and the Equal Rights Amendment. The President "doesn't deserve loyalty," she concluded, "because he has betrayed us."

Honegger's clamorous j'accuse made her an instant heroine among feminists ("nothing less than Reagan's smoking gun on women's issues," said NOW President Judy Goldsmith)—and confounded Administration officials already beset by worries over the election-threatening "gender gap." The Adminstration's counterattack only made matters worse. Justice Department spokesman Tom DeCair dismissed Honegger as a "low-level munchkin," and White House press secretary Larry Speakes smirked that "the last time I saw Honegger she was the Easter Bunny at the White House Egg Roll." Hell having no fury like a munchkin scorned, Honegger held a press conference ("Do you think they'd try to do this to a man?") and displayed a chummy photo of herself with Reagan ("This is the munchkin with the Wizard of Oz"). Suddenly Honegger was a media sensation, with a crowded schedule of TV and newspaper interviews.

Only later did embarassing questions start to emerge about her credibility and credentials. A believer in ESP who earned a master's degree in parapsychology from the little-known John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, Calif., Honegger claimed, for instance, that a "source" using her voice told her in January 1980 that she would join a future Reagan Administration to defend women's rights. "I'm not claiming I'm psychic," she now says. "I don't know what it is."

There were instances of erratic public behavior. At her Wizard of Oz news conference, she invited the crowd to join her later that afternoon in front of the White House to read an open letter to the President—then failed to show up, leaving an estimated 50 people waiting for 45 minutes.

Flying to San Diego on the day of President Reagan's speech there to the Republican Women's Leadership Forum, Honegger held forth in the restaurant of the Bahia Resort Hotel ("You do, of course, see that my initials are all over this hotel, don't you?"). "I decided to go public and follow my conscience," she said between spoonfuls of chocolate mousse. "I had to let the American people know what's going on. I have the solution, I know the solution. I was there for all of us...."

That night, on ABC's Nightline, she was pale and squinting. "I get migraines from the bright lights," she explained off camera as she scratched her nose with a haircomb. "You will let me know when I'm on camera and how many seconds to air time, won't you?" she demanded repeatedly, until one camera crew member blurted out, "Will someone tell her to shut up!" Her appearance was a fiasco, as Honegger defensively turned away sensible questions by telling guest host Sam Donaldson and viewers to "read my article in the Washington Post." Said one technician after the show: "Well, she's sunk her own boat. She's committed media suicide." Honegger herself seemed blissfully unaware of any flaw in her performance as she left the taping, barefoot.

The next day, on a plane to San Francisco, she loudly expounded such eccentric views of the Reagan Administration as this one: "Reagan is planning coerced body-part donation. And eventually coerced whole-body donations. That's what forced pregnancy is. If we can force whole bodies, why not body parts? Why should a fetus have more rights than you or I? The whole issue of the 1980s is: Is your body your own property?" After a sigh, she added: "If they'd just let me get to the top, I can help them. Since Reagan was shot and survived an assassination attempt, unconsciously the American public thinks that he is Superman, and the truth is that he is Kryptonite."

In San Francisco she attended a party at an apartment decorated with Indian bedspreads and brick-and-board bookshelves and hosted by physicist Saul-Paul Sirag, who read to a rapt audience of parapsychology enthusiasts (including former astronaut Rusty Schweickart) from his recently published work, Physical Constants and Cosmological Constraints. Some of the women at the party, however, confronted Honegger with her poor Night-line performance and questioned whether her comments were the result of "ego."

The 1960s throwback atmosphere of the gathering seemed perfectly suited to Honegger's unconventional background. By all accounts an excellent student, she graduated as valedictorian of her Hanford, Calif. high school in 1965 and earned her B.A. in creative writing at Stanford University. She later took graduate courses there, worked as a secretary for one of her professors and rose to brief campus prominence in 1975 when, in an incident prefiguring her later run-in with Reagan, she sued her boss for mistreatment. She settled out of court for $8,000, then wrote a scathing article on the incident that was published in the Stanford newspaper.

The story came to the attention of Stanford economist and Hoover Institution fellow Martin Anderson, who hired her as his research assistant and brought her to the Reagan camp when he signed on as a campaign adviser in 1980. Though some question whether the appointment of a woman with credentials as slim as Honegger's is proof of Reagan's lack of commitment to women's issues, Anderson defends his protégée. "She's very intelligent, and she has an extraordinary enthusiasm for a wide variety of things," says Anderson, who is back at the Hoover Institution. From the White House, where she was assistant to Anderson when he was Domestic Policy Advisor, Honegger moved to her Justice Department job in 1982.

Honegger's energetic career has apparently left no room for romantic interests. "I've been in love only once in my life," she says, "but external beauty was the most important thing to him. He became a plastic surgeon and married a tall blonde." Her resignation from the Justice Department (shortly before her job was to end, anyway) is not likely to open up her social schedule. Her planned projects, she says, include: consulting for the White House, an investigation into the Shroud of Turin ("the Holy Grail was Christ's skull") and a "dream bank" business which, she explains, "will be a complex computer-run operation. You wake up in the morning all groggy, call in your dream on the phone. It's punched into the computer's memory banks, and a week later you or your psychiatrist receives the hard copy." Her biggest project, she claims, will be a tell-all book, tentatively titled Immaculate Deception: Diary of a White House Munchkin.

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