The private lives of public figures have increasingly become part of the national scene. Usually, they are caught in the spotlight; they do not turn it on themselves.
Not so in Nashville. Here, Mayor Bill Boner, 45, who is divorcing his third wife, is involved in a most public romance with his fiancee, Traci Peel, a 34-year-old country singer who sports a 2.2-carat engagement ring. Details of their sex life are discussed on radio talk shows, in local newspapers. And the most volatile revelations came from the couple themselves.
Last month the Nashville Banner reported that Peel and Boner, during a telephone interview, giggled and joked about their sexual prowess, saying they had been caught by the reporter "at a bad time." At one point, Peel said Boner remained amorous as long as seven hours.
"That's pretty good for a 46-year-old man," Peel said.
"Forty-five," Boner corrected, talking on an extension.
Later, Peel said she was just joking.
But that was only the beginning of the uproar here. Nationally, the tabloids, both print and television, have had a ball. The Nashville Scene, a local weekly newspaper, ran a contest to complete this sentence: "You are so Nashville if . . . "
The winner, from Maralee Self: "Your mayor is married and engaged at the same time."
An oft-repeated joke here, which betrays some disgust with Boner, takes a feminine voice: "If he'd made love to me for seven minutes, it'd seem like seven hours, too."
Peel complained Tuesday in a surprise telephone call to a radio talk show that the media are making Boner "look like an idiot." In an interview with The Times, the mayor, looking like a harried man, refused to discuss the matter.
"I don't want to get into my personal life, other than I can just tell you that we're doing the job here and working every day," he said. Boner said he will not seek reelection next year, but rejected calls for his resignation. "Barring some unseen event, no," he said.
However, as the situation wears on, a lot of people around here are beginning to resent the publicity, even as they revel in the jokes. The shift comes as the bloom fades from Nashville's economic boom.
"Nashville is really on its butt," said Bruce Dobie, editor of the Scene. So, while on one level, "The whole thing is really a hoot," he said, on another level, "people are really getting bitter about it. They feel he is making us look like 'Hee Haw,' " the television show depicting hicks and bumpkins.
Economists say that Nashville seemed headed for super-stardom in the mid-1980s but that overbuilding created a glut of properties, a huge factor in the city's economic slowdown. Now bankruptcies are up and housing starts are down.
In such a soured economic climate, there is little tolerance for a mayor from whom rejuvenation seems to take on a new meaning.
Boner said he met Peel in May at a golf tournament. He announced in July that he and Peel were engaged, even though he is still married to his third wife, Betty. Boner's aides say the mayor and his wife had agreed to separate in January, but at the time his engagement was announced, the estranged Boners were living under the same roof with their 4-year-old son.
Peel, a former backup country singer and now an aspiring soloist, sings in Nashville nightclubs and is occasionally joined by Boner, who pulls out a harmonica and accompanies her. She said she and Boner plan to marry in Hawaii once the divorce is final. She sent pineapples to reporters to announce the impending nuptials.
Until the extensive discussion of his sex life in the public print, Boner appeared politically secure in Nashville. He ran for mayor in 1987 while sitting as a U.S. congressman representing Tennessee's 5th district. He was elected mayor with 53% of the vote. His resignation from Congress ended a House Ethics Committee investigation into a $50,000 salary paid to his wife, Betty, by a defense contractor.
Boner is now routinely pilloried on issues ranging from the city's need to improve its school system to where it should locate a landfill.
Richard Jackson, general counsel for Meharry Medical College and a recent unsuccessful candidate for the state Senate, said: "The Boner situation is why some people feel Nashville is not moving the way it should. People have to find some reason to explain why we didn't become the next Atlanta."
Boner argued that he inherited an extraordinary set of challenges when he assumed office in 1987. "People were living through the economic good times, and a lot of outside investors came in and invested," he said, adding that the city was "not prepared for this sudden on-rush" of building.
The mayor sounded an optimistic note. "We think we've about bottomed out," he said.
But within days of the story about his sex life, bumper stickers appeared here proclaiming: "Seven Hours for Traci. Three Years for Metro," referring to Boner's years as mayor of the 500,000-person metropolis.
Boner's supporters who had contributed $526,000 to his reelection campaign have begun asking for refunds because the mayor decided not to run again.
And, in an impassioned call for him to resign, Ruth Ann Leach wrote in her column for the Nashville Banner that Boner has become "a national dirty joke." She recounted wisecracks she encountered during a trip to Dallas, saying that Boner jokes had replaced Dolly Parton jokes.