Rep. Barr Inspires Loyalty, Loathing in Home District

By J. R. Moehringer
Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, January 19, 1999
© Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times

MARIETTA, Ga. -- Let liberals cringe every time his scowling face appears on TV. Let civil libertarians deplore his involvement with racist groups. Let pornographers allege adultery from his past.

Folks in the home district of Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) stand by their man.

That is, some of them do.

Already one of the most visible prosecutors in President Clinton's Senate trial, Barr found himself at the center of a media trial last week, accused by Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt of adultery. Barr refused to address the accusation directly--and the controversy seemed to change few minds in his backyard, where people remained divided as ever over their man in Washington.

"I just think Bob Barr can do no wrong," said David Williams, a real estate investor from Paulding County, about 20 miles west of Atlanta. "He's the greatest thing since sliced bread."

"Barr is like Clinton, always trying to cover up secrets," said Earl Baker. "You almost have to be a good liar to be president or in Congress."

At the Daily Tribune News, one of the largest newspapers in Georgia's 7th District, calls last week from readers ran 6 to 1 against the congressman, according to managing editor Jay Honeycutt.

"Mr. Barr," one reader said, "since Larry Flynt has revealed your adulterous affair, I expect we'll be receiving your resignation real soon, OK?"

"Larry Flynt is a pornographer," said another, "but he doesn't lie or sneak around to do it. Bob Barr is a sneak and a liar. Another thing, I don't pay Larry Flynt's salary."

But just up the road, in the little town of Hiram, opinion ran equally strong in the opposite direction.
"He's about the only one standing up for the process," said Robbie Hendricks, a Barr die-hard.

Since taking office in 1994, the 50-year-old Barr has espoused the conservative ideas and "family values" of many in this northwestern corner of Georgia. He's voted to repeal the ban on sales of semiautomatic assault weapons. He's supported a declaration making English the official language of the U.S. He's authored the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages, saying, "America will not be the first country in the world that throws the concept of marriage out the window."

In some circles, he's seen as something of an old-fashioned Southerner, a man who will publicly praise Robert E. Lee. And his feud with Clinton--whom Barr refers to only by his full name, William Jefferson Clinton, like a parent scolding a child--has sometimes been framed as a clash between the Old South and the New.

But Barr was born in Iowa and grew up in places like Iran and Panama. In fact, he attended USC, then Georgetown law school. He didn't move to the South until he was 30.

It was after law school, while working as a CIA analyst, that Barr divorced his first wife, whom he'd met in college, and married his second. Ten years later, in 1986, he divorced his second wife, who last week received an undisclosed sum of money from Flynt for making seven pages of sordid allegations against her ex-husband.

Among other things, Gail Barr swore that Barr began seeing the woman who would become his third wife, Jeri, before his second marriage ended.

"It is evident to me that Bob was having an affair with Jeri before Bob and I were divorced," Gail Barr contended. "In September of 1985, I was helping out as secretary in Bob's law office. He had me call to make luncheon arrangements with [Jeri]. Obviously, at the time, I did not realize Bob was having a romantic relationship with this woman. Friends would tell me that they saw Bob and Jeri holding hands at the mall or in restaurants."

During their divorce proceedings, according to Gail Barr, Barr was deposed and declined to answer questions about whether he had committed adultery.

In Marietta, the largest city in Barr's district, Gail Barr's accusations dominated last Wednesday's Marietta Daily Journal, which supported the congressman on its editorial pages, saying he was the victim of a "sexual bounty hunt." A front-page story quoted Barr's current wife, Jeri--who thanked people for their support but added that she'd been too busy to read or listen to media reports.

Barr wasn't too busy. He quickly took the offensive, blasting Flynt and the White House for conspiring against him. Still, he wouldn't deny the charge of adultery, saying merely that his refusal to answer questions under oath was not the same as perjury, the crime of which Clinton stands accused.

And that's good enough for hard-core Barr supporters, who either dispute the relevance of last week's allegations or doubt the source. By the same token, they seem untroubled that Barr was the keynote speaker last year at a meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens--a group that contends interracial marriage amounts to white genocide and that Abraham Lincoln was elected by communists.

"Dig enough into anyone's past and you'll find dirt," said Barry Geesey, a Barr constituent from Noonan.

"I figured they were going to dig up dirt on everybody who's against the president," Hendricks said. "Nothing surprises you anymore."

Mary Rose, a saleswoman from Cedartown, just shook her head. The real issues, she and others insisted, have nothing to do with how Barr spends his free time. "I think [Barr's] done a good job for this district," she said.

Rose proudly voted for Barr in 1998--when he carried just 55% of the vote, despite spending $1.5 million to his opponent's $11,000--because she liked his slant on big government, taxes and family values. Nothing she heard last week made her revise her opinion.

Still, Rose and others weren't exactly glued to their TV sets Friday when Barr strode to the podium in the well of the Senate to take a major speaking part in the greatest political drama of the last 25 years. "We have to work for a living," she said.

Just a block from Barr's Marietta campaign office, in fact, the trial felt as if it was millions of miles away. At a bar called Hemingway's, businessman Gene Hanratty played pinball, absorbed in his quest for a free game. The TV above his head was indeed tuned to name-calling and allegations of sexual misconduct, but it was "The Jerry Springer Show."

Even though he wasn't watching the Senate trial, Hanratty called himself a stalwart Barr supporter.
"I believe he's sincere in what he feels," he said. "I've gone to some of his town meetings, and it's really the rule of law he's concerned with. Does he like Bill Clinton? No. But it's the rule of law he wants to see upheld."

Did Hanratty care one way or the other if Barr committed adultery?

"No," he said, shrugging. "I have."

(Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.)