The older couple were lovey-dovey, all right. Their vacation in Paris had no doubt been delightful.

On the way home, they exchanged a smooch mid-aisle on the June 6 Atlanta-to-Memphis flight. Later, as they stood waiting to exit the plane, he lovingly massaged her shoulders.

As they hurried to meet the Mississippi state highway patrol officers at the gate, the couple were all smiles, oblivious to the fellow traveler frantically snapping their photograph with a $9 disposable camera.

The happy couple: Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice (R) and a woman not his wife.

Everyone already knew, of course.

Fordice, 65, who long ago set himself up as a family-values man and Clinton critic, has never tried to hide his personal turmoil from the good churchgoing people of Mississippi. As far back as 1993, he was publicly declaring his love for a never-quite-forgotten high school sweetheart--who turned out to be his Paris companion, Ann G. Creson of Memphis--and his desire to divorce Pat, first lady of Mississippi and the governor's wife now for 44 years.

When Pat Fordice firmly replied that she had no intention of getting a divorce now or ever, thank you, embarrassed Mississippians were happy to pretend the subject had never come up. Likewise, they looked the other way in 1996, when Fordice suffered a near-fatal one-car accident on a solo drive back to Jackson from Memphis, where he had been spied happily dining with a mystery woman (identified as Creson). His later claims of amnesia about that day went largely unchallenged.

But this recent Paris vacation? Why, that was a development so blatant, so in-your-face--and now, for the first time, with photos to prove it--that polite Mississippi society was stunned.

Over the next few days, Fordice's behavior only grew bolder: On June 8, he was captured on camera warning Bert Case, a reporter with WLBT-TV in Jackson, that "I'm going to whip your ass." Case had confronted Fordice outside his new $300,000-plus house in neighboring Madison County, a home Pat Fordice said she certainly knew nothing about--not that, or a new beach condo at Gulf Shores, Ala.

And for reasons still baffling to most Mississippians, the governor was photographed the next day by the Clarion-Ledger, walking his black Lab, Lance, on the bright morning streets of Jackson, outfitted in shorts, T-shirt, cap and a handgun in a holster on his hip.

"That was the one thing that made him appear almost ridiculous--insulting, really--to the general public, walking around with that gun strapped on him," says David Sansing, a retired history professor at the University of Mississippi who has long studied the peculiarities and peccadilloes of state history.

"It's just the way he is. He is so self-focused he thinks the sun gets up each morning when he does, he really thinks there's a connection between those two events. It wasn't paranoia, it was just macho. I heard people say, 'He didn't have to wear a gun.' But someone said, 'If Mrs. Fordice is really as upset as they say she is, maybe that's the reason.' "

Candor or Hypocrisy?

Suddenly, Mississippi feels ridiculed again.

When you have finished last or near-last in all the obvious indicators--per capita income, education--and then you make some important economic strides, thanks to a take-charge, business-minded governor like Fordice, then that same leader brashly turns the national spotlight on matters best kept private between husband and wife, what are you left with? That's how many people look at it: Fordice has made the state a laughingstock--with a melodrama involving a romantic triangle of 60-year-olds and 2.7 million Mississippians.

If only, many wish, he had muzzled himself on the Clinton issue. In recent years, Fordice seldom missed a chance to denounce the president's extramarital behavior and call for his resignation. He set himself up as an easy target when he, too, was exposed as a less-than-perfect spouse.

If only, they lament, he had not gotten involved as a national co-chairman of the Dan Quayle presidential campaign, a post wreathed in family values rhetoric. He promptly relinquished the job when the news of his French vacation broke--spawning more national headlines.

And if only he had stuck to business and kept his domestic troubles under wraps. As with Clinton, the man he hates comparisons to, many good things happened during the Fordice reign: A state virtually bankrupt when he took office in early 1992 now has a $230 million surplus. Eighteen billion dollars in capital investments have been recorded in Mississippi during his watch, according to Fordice spokesman Robbie Wilbur; 183,000 jobs have been created. Unemployment is at its lowest in 25 years.

But a silent Kirk Fordice would not have been the Kirk Fordice people elected, not once, but twice, making him not only the first Republican governor in Mississippi since Reconstruction, but also the first Mississippi governor of any stripe to succeed himself, thanks to a change in the law under the previous governor.

"He was loud and brash. If he decided to say 'cram it,' that's exactly what he would tell you," says Sid Salter, publisher of the Scott County Times, who broke the first story about Fordice's troubled marriage in April 1993. "There was a certain appeal to that. We had had a succession of blow-dried politicians."

Fordice was refreshing, a plain-talking former construction boss who had made millions with his Vicksburg firm. Case, the reporter from WLBT-TV, learned early on there was no point in trying to schedule an interview with the governor: "We would just show up wherever he was with a camera, and he'd say, 'Now what kind of stupid question do you have for me today?' " Case recalls almost fondly.

But Fordice's candor sometimes flashed into temper, and his quotability was often a liability. He told state legislators in no uncertain terms what he expected from them, alienating so many members of his own party that now, as his tenure winds down, he "couldn't even get a resolution honoring motherhood through the legislature," Salter says.

Pat Fordice, on the other hand, was sugar to her husband's vinegar, with her lovely manners, immaculate appearance and blend of culture and causes that made her Mississippi's very own combination of Jackie and Lady Bird. The mother of four grown children and grandmother of 11, she was a first lady at ease with cancer patients, wildflower experts or French arts officials. Indeed, when the governor had his near-fatal wreck, she hurried back from Paris, where she was making preparations for a Versailles exhibit to visit Jackson.

People seem admiring of her, embarrassed on her behalf.

"Were it not for the hurt poor Mrs. Fordice has had to go through, this would actually be a beautiful love story," Case says. "Renewing your relationship with somebody you originally had something for when you were 14 . . ."

Dueling Announcements

But perhaps Pat Fordice should not be pitied. Maybe she can take care of herself.

She remains in the governor's mansion. So does he. (It's a big house.) She has duties as first lady, she has said repeatedly, and intends to fulfill them. She has a lawyer; he has a lawyer. But nothing official has been filed in the way of a divorce, and neither of the Fordices is granting interviews.

Each, it appears, has had plenty to say, however--he through a single written statement and one news conference with a small group of Jackson reporters, and she through written replies her attorney has released.

The governor began the volley June 10, when his attorney released a statement announcing that the Fordices had retained separate counsel "to work out details" of a divorce, on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. It said they had been "estranged for a long period of time," and that the governor "further indicated he has developed a close relationship with a longtime friend, Ann G. Creson of Memphis." Once divorced, it declared, "he plans to marry her."

The first lady's response, released that same day, began by explaining why she had refused the governor's request that she join him in a public announcement on the collapse of their marriage. "She was afraid if she did so, it would send the wrong message, i.e., that she has condoned or forgiven her husband's conduct."

Her response continued:

"Mrs. Fordice feels that she has been caught up in a whirlwind of controversy which she had hoped to avoid for the sake of her children and for the sake of the people of this state, and that it is not fair for Governor Fordice to call upon her to calm the storms by making or adopting public announcements which run contrary to her true feelings."

And then grew ominous:

"Mrs. Fordice has not sought out a podium or a public forum to condemn her husband, and she is still hopeful that she will not be put in that position, but only time and his actions--not his words--will tell."

A few days later, after the story of the French vacation and the threatened beating and the pistol-packing dog-walker had rocketed from coast to coast in the news media, the first lady released a public apology to her constituents: "Pat apologizes to the people of this state for being a partner in a marriage that has become a source of embarrassment for Mississippi."

No apologies have been forthcoming from the governor. Three weeks ago, he called a news conference, reportedly painting a picture of a marriage so dismal--"no communications whatsoever"--that a quick, civilized divorce was the only way to put the mess to rest.

He denied that he had ever been a hypocrite in regard to Clinton, noting what he saw as crucial differences:

"I have never lied before a grand jury, never lied to the people, wagging my finger on TV, never conducted a scurrilous affair with a person half my age in the White House in the middle of the day while talking on the telephone to a senator," he said.

"I'm not a womanizer of much renown."

It was a good line, but he was not to get the last word. The next day, Pat's response crackled like a live wire.

Starting out by saying she disagreed with the governor's assessment that they had become "estranged," she did acknowledge that it had been "terribly strained these last 2 1/2 years because of outside influences and interference by that other woman."

Even though she still had her suspicions, she said, her husband had led her to believe the relationship with Creson had been terminated after his 1996 accident, when Pat herself had nursed him faithfully. She also disputed his claim that Pat-and-Kirk no longer functioned as a public and private couple.

"Until the governor's recent trip to France with Ms. Creson, Mr. and Mrs. Fordice had dined together almost every day, had attended family gatherings together, had made numerous public appearances together, and had made a vacation trip together to Colorado as recently as last year."

She again decried the governor's efforts to dislodge her from the governor's mansion early. Because of term limits, Fordice will leave office in January. He apparently wants her out before then.

"Mr. Fordice apparently wants the first lady to grant him a divorce on his terms, which have not even been made known to her, while ushering her out of the mansion in spite of her continued stated desire to continue her service to the people of this state at a time when a measure of integrity and dignity desperately needs to be restored to the office which she and her husband have held as governor and first lady."

No, she indicated, she could only go so far. "She cannot and will not . . . continue to remain silent when her husband takes a carefully chosen opportunity with the media to turn their tragedy into some sort of romantic comedy."

The Back Story

Legend has it that Kirk Fordice and Ann Creson were reunited--or re-ignited, some might say--at the 40-year reunion of the Class of 1952 of East High School in Memphis. That would have been 1992, but others whisper that the two have been close off and on for 20 years.

Fordice was the quarterback on the high school football team; Ann Garber, whom he has known since the age of 14, was the studious type. In their senior yearbook, Fordice said he wanted to be just like his dad and run a successful contracting firm. Ann said she wanted to be a good wife and mother.

Meanwhile, at Memphis's Central High School, Patricia Owens--later to become Pat Fordice--was reportedly leading cheers and aspiring to a future in the medical field.

It is not clear when Fordice's attentions shifted from Creson to his future wife, or if that's even the way it happened. There may have been intervening girlfriends. But in a report aired by WLBT during her husband's first inauguration in early 1992, Pat Fordice joked that she had had to fight for the quarterback of East High School.

A year before the Fordice union in 1955, Ann married Roy Franklin Creson Jr., the owner of a cabinet manufacturing company, and settled in a middle-class neighborhood in east Memphis. She has never spoken publicly about her relationship with the governor. Before his death of cancer last November, Roy Creson had uttered only a handful of words on the subject.

In 1996, Bert Case happened to catch Roy Creson on the telephone and asked him if his wife was the woman in the governor's life.

"Ah, that's all in the past," Case said Creson replied.

No Clear Outcome

Jeff Abell, a reporter with WMC-TV in Memphis, was returning from the regional Emmy Awards when he recognized the couple sitting in the two aisle seats in front of him on the Atlanta-to-Memphis flight. He already had covered Gov. Fordice's alleged affair with Ann Creson. Here was a scoop.

"I hit the Skyphone midway through," says Abell, who was unable to roust a station crew late on a Sunday night. He figured he'd have to rely on his own disposable camera to snap the exclusive shots.

After observing the couple together, Abell says he does not doubt their sincerity. "It was obvious to me there's a deep relationship there," he says. "They looked like they were in love--of course, love is in the eye of the beholder."

As the last months of the Fordice era unfold, the couple's divorce lawyers offer somewhat conflicting views of where things stand. Pat's attorney, L.C. James, says the relationship between the Fordices is "more alienated by the day."

His client, he says, "has been extremely hurt, extremely aggrieved, has been to the point of some sense of loss. . . . This is not something she wanted, but at the same time, there's nothing she can do to make the marriage work. It takes two people working hard to keep a marriage together."

The governor's attorney, James Becker, seemed to be putting a more upbeat spin on matters this week when he said, "I think they're both working at this with hopeful optimism."

Both lawyers refuse to disclose what assets might be involved in the negotiations. In one of her written statements, Pat Fordice indicated she is virtually homeless now, since her husband sold the longtime family spread in Vicksburg.

Although public sympathies here have largely remained with Pat Fordice, some wonder why she didn't cut and run long ago, given her husband's cold remarks.

"When he asked for a divorce the first time and didn't want me anymore, he would've been out of there," says Eva Noblin, who serves on the state executive committee for the Mississippi Democratic Party. "I always said Monica should be very happy Hillary is not from the South. Women in the South take care of that kind of thing. I have a friend who beat her husband's girlfriend to the ground. I don't really agree with it, but as a whole, Southern women get mad at the woman, go for the jugular."

But Pat Fordice, she says, has been most restrained.

As for Kirk Fordice, no one doubts that he will bounce back. He may even get a last laugh.

Despite his recent failures with state lawmakers, the governor was able to call a special session of the legislature beginning later this month--just days before all 52 state Senate seats and 122 state House seats go up for grabs in the Aug. 3 Democratic and Republican primaries. The issue is a longtime pet project of Fordice's--a 10 percent income tax rebate--that may force gun-shy politicians to take a controversial stand when they'd rather be glad-handing at campaign picnics.

If, like Clinton, Fordice is wondering about his legacy, he can bask in the fact that many consider him Mississippi's best economic governor ever. But that's not all they will talk about.

"I wish we could talk about eradicating poverty," Salter says, "instead of who Kirk Fordice is sleeping with."

CAPTION: They danced together in 1992, but now Gov. Kirk Fordice and wife, Pat, each have a lawyer and issue statements about their relationship.

CAPTION: A reporter with WMC-TV in Memphis spotted Gov. Kirk Fordice and Ann Creson after their Paris vacation.

CAPTION: In high school, Kirk Fordice was quarterback of the football team; Ann Garber (now Creson), whom he has known since age 14, was the studious type.