"If there's an old-boy network," said one committee member archly, "then there is an old-girl network rapidly developing." She smiled. "And a lot of the old girls are outraged."
The old girls put on a fund-raiser for one of their own last night - Betty Talmadge, former wife of Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge. And the list of names on the committee as well as many of those who showed up was pretty formidable.
Lady Bird Johnson, Pamela Harriman, Ambassador to Belgium Anne Cox Chambers and Liz Carpenter lent their names but couldn't make it.
Lynda Bird Robb, Barbara Blum of the EPA, Muffie Brandon, Bess Abell, Oatsie Charles, Yolande Fox, Scooter Miller, Senate wives Ellen Proxmire and Gretchen Byrd, Mary Hoyt, Gretchen Poston, Nancy Jordan, Nancy Dickerson, Peter Bourne, Mary King, Henry and Jessica Catto, Frances Humphrey Howard and Barbara Raskin all put on an appearance for their friend Betty, who is now running for Congress from the 6th District in Georgia.
And though most wouldn't come right out and say it, for fear of demeaning Betty Talmadge as a candidate, they came to show their sympathy for her and to tuck it to Herman Talmadge for the way he has handled what heated headlines are portraying as one of the messiest divorces in the history of the U.S. Senate.
From the moment Betty Talmadge first learned from a TV newscast that her husband was planning to divorce her to the charge she made in court that Herman Talmadge was "guilty of cruel treatment" until the bitter dispute over a stock holding, women all over Washington, Georgia and even the rest of the country have been ralying to her defense.
Ina Ginsburg, who was on the committee list but who was sick in bed with the flu, spoke for many of the women and men who support Betty Talmadge.
"Of course," she said. "I am supportive of women candidates. But I also feel that she deserves some sympathy for having gone through a very rough time. And all this latest stuff doesn't help. The whole situation is truly unbelievable. It's just a schocker. I'd do anything for her. It's horrible. I don't know what has happened to American men. I'm not commenting on the breakup. It's the behavior I'm commenting on. The way it's done."
"Let's face it," said another committee member, their court battle "is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice I have ever seen."
And what outraged the old girls more than anything was a reported quote from Attorney General Griffin Bell which whipped like wildfire around Muffie Brandon's backyard on Embassy Row where the fund-raiser was held.
Bell allegedy had disapproved of Betty Talmadge running for office and had said something to the effect that she was hurting "poor Herman."
Standing around the lawn eating ribs and drinking beer and wine (no bourbon for the disappointed hardcore drinkers) clutches of women, sprinkled with a few men, talked in sympathetic low tones about the plight of their favorite friend and there was more than just a little "there-but-for-the-Grace-of-God" feeling to some of the conversations.
Many of the women came without husbands, among them Lynda Bird Robb, the mother of a 3-week-old baby and the wife of Virginia's lieutenant governor, an aspiring politician.
And though many of those who said they would come never showed, though there were no senators, who senators' wives and only one representative, more than 125 people did come to show their support-which is to bad for the middle of the summer.
She had kept up a brave face all night, though there were those who felt a better showing, particularly of political people, had been hoped for. She had worn a brown and white, long cotton dress, her hair was nicely done and she looked fresh and slimmer than she had in a long time.
Still, there was the look of uncertainty about Betty Talmadge as she greeted guests at the entrance to the back lawn, a tentative quality, a vulnerability that was poignant. She was not the typical gladhanding politician this city is used to. Betty Talmadge was letting it all hang out. She didn't have any choice.
Earlier in the day, as she flew in to town, raced to the Colonnade apartments where she once lived and where her ex-husband now keeps the apartment, she gave an interview as she sat, hair in rollers, under the hair dryer in the hairstylists.
"It never occurred to me, while I was married to Herman, to run for office," she said. "I was reared in a small town in Georgia. I remember my mother used to say, 'Be a lovely complement to Herman.'
"But mine wasn't as sudden a change as it might seem. I had to take charge to that ham business. I had that growth period. But you still want to be a complement to your husband. He handled the politics. I handled the business."
As the noise from the hair dryer nearly drowned out her voice and she kept having to lift the cotton pads off her ears to hear the questions.
Betty Talmadge, making do once again, talked about why she would be a good congresswoman. "My 21 years as a Senate wife would be an asset," she said.
"I'm not going to suggest that people will agree with what I [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] least I'll be able to get them on the phone. I doubt they'd say. "Betty who?'"
Betty Talmadge is in an unusual situation. Usually an outspoken, candid woman she is now in the position of having to keep very closed-mouth for fear of endangering both her law suit against her husband over the couple's estate and her congressional race.
She occasionally during the interview she would nod assent or raise an eyebrow in confirmation rather than say anything directly. She is quite good at sign language.
Asked about Griffin Bell's alleged remark about her, she smiled and nodded, then said. "I've heard of that. But I'm not running against Herman. I'm being warmly received."
As for support from the Senate wives, she again smiled, raised an eyebrow and said. "I don't want to put them on the spot. It's just one of those things."
The bad publicity, she said, she knew was coming. "It's tough looking at it, of course.
"Everybody has problems, mine just happen to be in the paper. In Fulton county (Atlanta) there were more divorces last year than marriages." And then. "Oh Lord, I don't think I'll ever marry again. I'll never those words again. The difficult thing to do is to keep my personal life out of this race."
More difficult even for Betty Talmadge than keeping out her personal life, is actually being the candidate herself, raising money for herself, speaking for herself instead of someone else.
"I've raised money all my life helping Herman, helping Jimmy Carter. But raising for myself [WORD ILLEGIBLE] kills me. And I never made speeches. I just went with Herman. Before I never really had to express an opinion. I just listened. Now suddenly people want to know what I think. So you have to weigh things, think them through."
The thing, she says, that has kept her going, despite the humiliation and the difficulty brought on by the public nature of her divorce, is the support of her friends. "I'm a little overwhelmed with it all.
"People have been so good to me." she said almost incredulously. "It means so much."
One senator's wife who wished not to be quoted said that when she told her husband she was coming he raised his eyebrows and then shrugged. "Well," he said , "I'll just tell Herman I couldn't control you."
And "Herman's" power as chairman of the Agriculture Committee and a member of the Finance Committee was not forgotten or underestimated for a minute by any of the politically astute guests last night.
Steve Martindale, a graduate of former New York Sen. Charles Goodell's office didn't hestitate to say how he felt about Mrs. Talmadge or the senator.
"I've known her for years," said Martindale. "She's intelligent and she has a big, big heart. As a candidate she obviously understands Washington and what makes it work and if we've learned anything in the past few years we're ready for some insiders."
Martindale thinks the latest publicity on the divorce will have different effects both here and in Georgia. "In Georgia, Herman Talmadge's name is revered. Here, I would think the publicity for her would be a big plus. In Georgia it's a different ball game. It's very traditional. Old style. The wife never blows the whistle on the husband. No matter what. And that's where she's running."
"But even here," says Martindale, "you have to remember the workings of the seniority system and the committees Herman Talmadge is on. If he wants to screw you he can. He's a very powerful man in the Senate and in this city."
According to one committee member many of the Senate wives quietly sent in contributions to Betty Talmadge without publicly coming out in support of her. The fund-raiser drew at total of $10,000.
"Some of the wives feel they can't because their husbands don't want to take on Herman," said this committee member. "But a lot of those women are behind her. Don't forget, she rolled bandages with them. They're quietly supportive, but they're scared. Women just love Betty. She could walk on the Red Sea as far as they're concerned."
Ellen Proxmire, wife of Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), said she came because "I admire her strength and her courage. I think it takes a lot of courage to do what she has done."
Proxmire's husband left her for over three years and they have only just recently reconciles.
"The publicity is devastatingly difficult and traumatic," said Ellen Proximire. "You're talking about the dissolution of a personal relationship. And this is a hard task to take on at this point in your life. That's the last thing I'd want to do. You're back in the couldron again."
Though several members of Rosalynn Carter's staff came to the fund raiser, including press secretary Mary Hoyt, there was no evidence of Mrs. Carter's personal endorsement of Betty Talmadge. "I'm representingmyself," said Hoyt, adding that she did not know what Mrs. Carter's position on Betty Talmadge's race was or even whether she had been invited to the fund-raiser.
Throughout the evening, the men and women who were there, touted Betty Talmadge as a good businesswoman, an intelligent person (she ran a successful meat business), a kind woman, a supporter of their projects, a friend and a potentially effective congresswoman. Not to mention a great mother-in-law.
Lyncice Talmadge, who was married to the Talmadges'-son (he died three years ago in a swimming accident) was there last night, having taken a leave of absence from her job at Southern Bell in Atlanta to campaign for her mother-in-law. "I'm working with the campaign because I would like to see Mother Talmadge win," she said simply and adamantly.
But nevertheless the underlying theme of the party was that Herman Talmadge was not going to get away with what was perceived as wrongdoing his ex-wife.
One male guest, whose wife claimed he never goes to fund-raisers, said, "I came because I think she's been taken advantage of and I think she needs all the help she can get."
After the majority of the guests had arrived, the crowd was called to order by Nancy Dickerson. "One thing is pretty obvious." said Dickerson. "You all came here because A) you believe in good government and B) you believe in good friendship."
"Dear gracious friends," said Taldmadge, standing diffidently in front of her guests. "I have a tough race and a good chance. It will help to go home with this sort of support to impress all my friends back home."