Opposites attract? Mitchell might say so





It's not the way we're used to hearing George Mitchell described. Usually the 60-year-old Senate majority leader is described as a quiet man; a patient man; a man possessed of a judicial temperament.

So brace yourself. In fact, you'd better sit down at the kitchen table for this one. The announcement that the mild-mannered former altar boy is engaged to 35-year-old tennis manager Heather MacLachlan who, judging from her photo, is a knockout, is shaking up that old image of Senator Mitchell.

It is said that Senator Mitchell and the Canadian-born Ms. MacLachlan met only last September at the U.S. Open in New York. The attraction is said to have been instant.

His fiancee, by the way, is the ex-girlfriend of former tennis pro Ion Tiriac -- a flamboyant Romanian whose menacing presence, says NBC-TV tennis commentator Bud Collins, earned Mr. Tiriac the nickname "Count Dracula."

"He's a very tough guy," says Mr. Collins of Mr. Tiriac, now a successful sports promoter. "He used to like to meet you and bump heads with you -- which was very painful. He also used to eat champagne goblets as a party trick." George Mitchell, by contrast, just turned down an opportunity to sit on the Supreme Court.

Mr. Collins, who knows Ms. MacLachlan, says he was caught off-guard by the news of her engagement. "I didn't realize she'd become entwined with George Mitchell -- who, I am told, fancies himself the tennis player. It's kind of amusing," he says, chuckling. "And totally out of context for Heather."

Which raises the question: What the heck is going on here? To which the answer is: a probable outbreak of the Mild-Mannered Guys With Hot-Ticket Wives Syndrome.

It's Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett all over again. Ditto Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. Not to mention Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding. Or Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher. Or Elizabeth Taylor and Sen. John Warner.

Or even Tonya Harding and Rush Limbaugh. (Just kidding. Hope no one fainted.)

At this point, perhaps a little background would help.

Historians who have studied the Mild-Mannered Guys With Hot-Ticket Wives Syndrome trace it back to: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Although Ms. Rogers and Mr. Astaire were not married to each other, they nonetheless embodied the symbiotic nature of a relationship between a glamorous woman and a nerdy-looking guy. (Note to reader: Please, no letters decrying the description of Mr. Astaire as nerdy-looking. Such a look is found most attractive by some women. Which, in case you're not paying attention, is the whole point of this article.)

But it fell to Katharine Hepburn, that astute observer of human nature, to explain the phenomenon of Ginger and Fred: "He gives her class and she gives him sex."

Which brings us back to mild-mannered George Mitchell and his choice of partner. In this case, it falls to Sally Quinn -- novelist, former Washington Post reporter and the consummate Washington insider -- to explain the phenomenon of George and Heather. She approaches it from a psychological standpoint. "I guess the shrinks would call it 'splitting,' " Ms. Quinn says, referring to a marriage in which one partner owns the nice side of the relationship and the other the wilder side.

"In the case of George Mitchell, he's always described as a nice, quiet guy; but inside is this wild and crazy guy dying to come out. He's chosen someone who can act it out for him. She's probably gone for him for the opposite reason."

Oh, yes, and then there's that age thing. "Let us not ignore the 25-year age difference," adds Ms. Quinn.

"She is 35, and for a 60-year-old guy, that's got to be very attractive. It kind of shoots down all these theories that noble George Mitchell is passing up the Supreme Court to get Clinton's health plan through the Senate. I think what it means is that George Mitchell wants a little action before he dies."

Ms. Quinn then poses a deeply philosophical question: "If you had the choice of living a bachelor's life at age 60 and making, what, $100,000 in the Supreme Court for the rest of your life or marrying some 35-year-old hot potato and making a million-five a year as baseball commissioner, which would you choose?"

Another insider, Washingtonian magazine editor Diana McLellan, reads the Mitchell-MacLachlan engagement in a similar way.

Calling the announcement "absolutely flabbergasting," she says: "I think it's a hormonal Last Hurrah. It's just something that these guys do when their blood is suddenly stirred. Look at George Will. Remember when he dropped his wife and hopped aboard with somebody else?"

Not really. But that's another story.

And speaking of other stories, what's next? Or to be more precise, who's next in the Mild-Mannered Guys With Hot-Ticket Wives Sweepstakes? Shannen Doherty and Alan Greenspan?

Stay tuned.

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