The Boss was famous, influential, rich and married. The young woman was none of the above and 23 when she became the Boss's secretary and lover in 1972. The Boss's mate, who knew all about the secretary, was more understanding than Cosmopolitan magazine. There were trips, and there were gifts, and whether there were legally enforceable promises, made by the Boss, may be decided in a courtroom. That's where Marilyn Barnett is seeking financial support from her married ex-lover and ex-boss, Billie Jean King.
To follow Billie Jean King's own aggressive PR counteroffensive, these past two weeks, is to be carried inexorably to the conclusion that she must be a modern Joan of Arc -- with a better backhand.Far better than most presidential candidates, Billie Jean King understands our contemporary culture. She should. For far more than most presidential candidates, she has influenced that culture. Remember her 1973 trouncing of lippy Bobby Riggs? Of course you do -- and probably a lot better than you remember Jimmy Carter beating Jerry Ford.
Still, her first reaction to the charges was dumb: she denied the relationship. "Untrue and unfounded," she stonewalled.
For the next three days, the performance of Barnett's lawyer called to mind Mark Twain's line about a man "with the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces." The plaintiff's four aces, it appeared, were a hundred love letters from her ex-boss that she had sentimentally saved.
Accompanied by her parents and her husband Larry, Billie Jean King dropped the stonewall and told a press conference, "I made a mistake." It was more concession than confession. But with her family looking on and looking wan, the concession alone, was powerful television.
Billie Jean King had obviously mastered all the semi-recent cultural rules changes, including the revision that holds that, just as soon as the prominent trespasser's conduct is publicly admitted, then the prominent trespasser's candor and character can be publicly and repeatedly admired. That is, if there is -- as there seemed to be for Betty Ford and there seemed not to be for former representative Wilbur Mills -- an adequate reserve of good will available to the penitent. Billie Jean King was loaded with good, permanent press to help shift attention from her foibles to her frankness. Bud Collins, the tennis analyst, wrote she was "an American heroine if ever there was one" who "has never run from the truth." Even The Truth New York Times editiorial page was moved to admire her style: "True to form, Mrs. King stormed the net and took the offensive." Confession, which may sometimes be very good for the soul, is often very sound strategy, too.
What about the cuckolded mate, asked some bleeding hearts in the back of the ball? While the rest of us listened, Larry King told Barbara Walters that, yes, he had been aware of the affair and he did not blame Billie Jean, or presumably, Marilyn. Larry King blames himself. No apologies for looking like a mess in curlers and smoking jacket, but instead this statement about life on the road; "I'd prefer that she be, you know, happy and somebody's helping her, and doing those things I would do if I were there rather than just be by herself all the time." And some cynics thought the open marriage had gone the way of the Nehru jacket.
But any concept of blame or fault can be hazardous. In our contemporary catechism, this sole surviving mortal sin is to be Judgmental. To criticize another's behavior (unless that behavior is demonstrably either sexist or racist) is forbidden because that is the essence of being judgmental. No one is at fault, unless he is being judgmental. If you have any questions about this doctrine, you can consult it's most popular theologian: talk show host Phil Donahue. Donahue will be with you just as soon as he concluded non-judgmentally interviewing the man from Billings, Mont., who cured his athlete's foot by eating the glass from 113 beer bottles. You don't have to agree with the guy, but it sure takes some guts to talk about it on national television -- right Phil?
And maybe Phil or Billie Jean or some body else could tell us just who would be the hero or the heroine of the opening scene in this column if the rich, famous, influential and married boss were a male U.S. senator. Would the boss be the villian and the ex-secretary or the wife be the victim, or would it depend on who first demonstrated satisfactory candor?