Georgette Mosbacher Rides With McCain

Georgette Mosbacher in her Fifth Avenue apartment.

Georgette Mosbacher-the former Republican superwife now serving as the main New York operative for insurgent Presidential candidate John McCain-was seated in a booth at Balthazar restaurant on Spring Street. She was talking about her 1998 divorce from oilman Robert Mosbacher, a Texan preppy who served as George Bush’s Secretary of Commerce.

“When you’ve been married so long,” she said, “you think you have a strong identity-but all of a sudden you have to find out who you are all over again. You have to build another life.”

With the help of Mr. McCain and the role he has given her in his campaign-she’s a big fund-raiser and his informal adviser-she is in the process of building that new life and remaking her reputation. She was apparently not over the breakup, however. Three years ago, Mr. Mosbacher, her husband of 15 years, called her up from Houston and announced that he had filed for divorce.

“I’m still not out of the woods, so to speak,” she said. “But I have found that there is life after marriage. And that it can be just as exciting, just as fulfilling. I don’t think a lot that’s ever been written about me really reflects that. When a woman’s called a socialite, there are some that would call that a compliment. But, really, it labels a woman, and diminishes her. Men can put on tuxedos and sapphire studs and they’re still C.E.O.’s-they’restillsubstantive. Women, the minute you’re called a socialite, it means that somehow you’re not substantive. And I’ve worked my whole life. I’m restructuring a company. I deal with cash flows, and I’m presenting the budget to the bank tomorrow. Inventory controls. I have a very healthy consulting business, but that’s not how I’m seen, really.”

She ordered a plain burger, no bun, medium well.

“I was courted by all the candidates. I wasn’t really surprised by that so much, because politics is so much about money and I work hard at that … There are very few women who are big political fund-raisers.”

Ms. Mosbacher, 53, was wearing a brown tweed pant suit that showed off her figure very well. Her red hair was up in a French twist. Her bangs covered her red tattooed eyebrows. Was she better off without Mr. Mosbacher?

“No, never thought that,” she said. “I spent 15 years with this person, and I loved him very much. I would say this is a new life. I have another life to lead. I would say this is the beginning of a new life. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, it’s scary at times. It can be lonely. But I’ve been very lucky.”

She is better off now than she was the day of that fatal phone call in 1997.

“My self-esteem hit the floor,” she said, “and I felt scared and insecure, and I felt unattractive, and I felt stupid, and I felt all those things you go through. I felt lost. I felt really lost. It’s as if someone takes a hand grenade and throws it in the middle of your life. You’re charred, and you’re dazed, and everywhere you look it’s rubble. And you go, ‘What do I do now?'”

From 1988 to ’92, she was a supreme Washington wife, pilloried in the press for embodying the excesses of the age. She has fond memories of that time, the dinner parties with Margaret Thatcher and all that.

“Oh, Margaret Thatcher! Here was a woman who never ever apologized for being a woman, never made excuses for being a woman … She found my dinners interesting, because they were not the usual social babble, but that I do orchestrate my dinners to be a forum, if you will. That’s why I always have everyone at one table, round table, and always throw a question on the table and allow everyone to participate, and that’s my dinner party! She said, to go to a formal dinner party and be challenged intellectually, she said I did it very well. I think she used the term salon … And now the last time I sat with her she was very intrigued with McCain. She said, You know I think this McCain, you’ve got a winner there’.

The lunch at Balthazar was on Jan. 24. In Iowa, as Ms. Mosbacher made her way through half the burger, voters were rejecting her man in favor of the likely Presidential nominee, George W. Bush.

“I do believe John will win New Hampshire, and then after that it’s really a horse race-and I wouldn’t underestimate McCain.”

Ms. Mosbacher, who still considers herself a Bush family friend, is diplomatic in discussing the front-runner.

“I think where we’re lucky is that these are two good men,” she said. “We get to pick between two good men. Two men who can lead, two quality people, don’t always have that … I will be in it with John until the end, but if for any reason John is not our candidate, I can tell you that Senator McCain and I will be on board whoever the Republican nominee is.”

A Bush-McCain ticket, perhaps?

“Oh! Two fabulous human beings. Two outstanding men. John has told me No. I have to take him at his word. I also know that history tells us that when that phone call comes, it’s hard to say No. It’s a maybe. Maybe it’ll be Bush-McCain or McCain-Bush. I want some mustard and some ketchup.”

It took a while, but a busboy came through. She poured on a healthy amount. She continued, saying that everyone expected her to go with Mr. Bush.

“In a way, I expected me to go with Governor Bush,” she said. “I know him well, and I really like him. I was there when he was inaugurated as Governor, I watched him really rise to the occasion-but John is a friend since 1988. I know John, I admire John, respect John. John turned 63 in September-I knew that this was John’s shot.”

She added that reading about Mr. McCain’s P.O.W. trials moved her.

“I think I was going through my darkest time, too,” she said. “And I was so moved by the thought of being in captivity for that long. I kept thinking, We’re talking about five and a half years!”

But did her ex-husband’s relationship with the Bushes have anything to do with her decision to go with Mr. McCain?

“I didn’t know what role my ex-husband was going to play in the Bush campaign,” she said, “or if he was going to play a role. I didn’t want to put the Bushes through having to choose or take sides. I’ve never told anyone this. And I knew that my former husband and I, we were friends but … primarily due to me … a conscious decision … that I would not allow myself to be eaten up with bitterness. My husband left me for another woman, which is most traumatic of all for a woman. It was, frankly: ‘Does this put me at a disadvantage?’ And at that time, everything associated with my ex-husband was highly suspect. As much as I adore G.W., I just knew the Bushes were so associated with my ex-husband that I just didn’t know where I fit. Now I know he had no role, none whatsoever. And at the time everything was skewed in my thinking. Here’s the man who threw the hand grenade in my life. Everything that revolved around him, I was confused about. I’ve never explained this to anyone. I didn’t even explain this to John. And then I read that book and I thought, ‘My God, anyone who has stood an extraordinary test of character and love of country, John McCain has done that like no one else. And he has earned the right to be President.'”

Could Ms. Mosbacher have survived that camp?

“We all like to think we could,” she said. “I like to think I would. I like to think I would step up. But it’s so extreme that I don’t know. It’s scary.”

Ms. Mosbacher grew up poor in Highland, Ind. Her father was a pipe-fitter who died in a car accident when she was 7 years old. Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother raised her and her three siblings. Her clothes were all secondhand, even into her college years at Indiana University. Before her first marriage (she’s had three all together, all to older, wealthy men), she worked as a switchboard operator, checkout girl, carhop, baby sitter, bookkeeper, dressmaker and waitress. She also took in ironing. So what made her a good fund-raiser?

“I’m not afraid to ask. And I don’t hear No.”

And did she wish she had grown up rich?

“What child does not? Every girl wants to be rich and beautiful when she grows up. I mean, I was not unlike any other girl in that respect, in that dream. You dream of Prince Charming and the castle on the hill. I got all of it. Especially those years in Washington! I remember having dinner in the White House, and this was in the private quarters, just a little dinner that the President and Mrs. Bush gave for the Queen of Siam-I still call it Siam. Bangkok, Thailand. And the President had to get up before dessert was served, because he had to fly off to Madrid. And he was actually flying off to make history, because it was the first time the Arabs and the Jews were going to come to the negotiating table. He said, ‘O.K., everybody, don’t get up.’ And we all decided, Well, we’d get up and see him off, so we walked over to the terrace of the White House, the helicopter’s parked on the lawn there. And I’m standing there, I’ve got the Queen of Thailand standing next to me, we have a drink in our hand, it was coffee, we’re chitchatting. It’s a small group, maybe 20 people, and the President comes trotting out on the lawn, he turns around, he waves to all of us. We’re waving to him, and I stopped, and said out loud, ‘Georgette, you are standing on the terrace of the White House, chatting with the Queen of Thailand, waving to the President as he goes to make history.’ Oh, I loved every minute of it!”

She had to get back to the office. She was wearing an orthopedic shoe as a result of a hairline foot fracture. Heads turned as she hobbled out of Balthazar and down the street to her temporary office at Borghese, a cosmetics company now being restructured by Georgette Mosbacher Enterprises consulting firm.

The Borghese offices had a white, minimalist look. Her corner office has a view of rooftops and Lafayette Street. A curved desk. A safe. In a shelf, all the files on Borghese, business plans, corporate profiles.

“Lisa, anything pressing, hon?” she asked her assistant.

The televisions was showing CNN with the sound off.

“There’s G.W.,” Ms. Mosbacher said.

A New Hampshire projection had 43 percent for McCain, 34 for Bush.

“I think we’re going to win New Hampshire. I also think we have to win New Hampshire. I don’t know, I think this whole caucus thing, it’s ridiculous.”

She unpacked her Sony laptop. Lisa shut the door. We sat at a table. I asked her to talk about how she met her first husband, when she posed as a Time magazine reporter.

“Oh, do I have to? I’m so sick of hearing the stories about my husbands! Why is it when they do features about men, they never talk about their ex-wives? Or they don’t talk about how their ex-father-in-law put them in business or their first wife put them through school, they never talk about that. You don’t hear that, that the father-in-law staked them or their first wife dropped out of college so that they could finish school. But when a woman’s written about, it had to be the husbands had to play such a major role. She couldn’t possibly be where she is had not that role been what it is. It defines her. It doesn’t define the men.”

“You would have been a success even without-“

“I consider myself a success. What I consider the failures of my life are my marriages.”

“But you made sure you got a lot out of the marriages, right?”

“In terms of what I learned? Not money. But I learned a lot. And my ex-husband [Mr. Mosbacher], I really think I’m a lot of the woman I am today because of him.”

I changed the subject to Cary Grant, whom she spent time with when she worked for Fabergé. He was on the board. She became the chief executive’s wife.

“Oh, yeah, I remember sitting on an airplane going to Canada, to a factory,” she said, smiling, “and he went through all the songs when he was on Broadway, and he sang them to me, and he was reminiscing. It was great! It was in my 20’s.”

“Did he put the moves on you?”

“No. I’m not the type of person that moves are put on, if I don’t invite them.”

She talked about money. She mentioned that she didn’t fight hard for her settlement from Mr. Mosbacher and could have gotten more (although she gets $500,000 a year in alimony).

“I didn’t want to go to court,” she said. “I think it was the lowest high-profile divorce. That was a conscious decision. I didn’t want to read about it. I didn’t want to be a victim. I didn’t want the bitterness of going through a court battle and lawyers calling me.”

“Do you experience fear ever?”

“Well, through a divorce, there’s all kinds of things, they all kind of collide together. The fear of being alone, the fear of your life changing, friends.”

“But don’t you kind of like being on your own? You can do whatever you want. Freedom. Blank slate and all that?”

“Yeah, but my life has been one of caring for someone. That’s what I do best. Being the oldest in a one-parent family, and I supported and took care of my grandmother until she died. I take care of my mom, my sister works with me. I’m a care-giver. So there’s that void. Not having that one person to take care of.”

“Are you in touch with Mr. Mosbacher at all?”

“He’s the biggest influence in my life. And he taught me so many positive things, but it was the first time in my life that I’ve ever known betrayal.”

She was starting to cry now.

“Betrayal just brings a whole ‘nother … when the one person you trusted the most in your life … to keep you safe? When the one person you trusted that was your best friend on earth betrays you, it’s, I don’t even know that I can put it in words. I don’t know if you ever get over it, totally. I feel like I’ve been permanently harmed. What you do is you rebuild your life and hopefully build a better life, but betrayal is an insidious thing.”

She had an appointment with her accountant on East 43rd Street. A minivan, with driver, was waiting for her on Spring Street. Eve, her King Charles spaniel, accompanied us.

“Who are your friends in Manhattan supporting, mostly Bush?”

“A lot are supporting Bush but a lot have given me money and are supporting McCain as well. I’m doing everything I can to get them to contribute and vote for John McCain. Absolutely.”

We were on the F.D.R. Drive heading north now.

“I’m still the same person even through this test and challenge,” she said. “My priorities are the same. I think when you come from where I come from, there are certain material things that you need to get to. Some people outgrow that, some people don’t. I believe I’ve outgrown that. Those things don’t hold any fascination for me. Material things don’t have much meaning for me. It’s easy to say that, I live comfortably.”

“But you’re changed?”

“I’m changed in that I’m more mature. I think I’m much more secure, after going through that time of fear and insecurity. I’ve emerged from it a much more secure person.” /FONT