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- May 07, 1979
- Vol. 11
- No. 18
Carter Aide Jack Watson and Dancer Wife Teena Buck a Trend in Togetherless Washington
There are, of course, many examples of enduring wedlock in the nation's capital, starting with the couple in the White House. But no other marriage seems to require such a willing suspension of belief in the perils of publicity, the laws of chance and the inflexibility of airline schedules as that of Jack H. Watson Jr. and Teena Marie Mohr.
Watson, 40, is secretary to the Carter Cabinet and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs. His hours are long (a 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. day is routine) and out-of-town trips frequent. Teena, 43, runs a professional dance company in Atlanta that demands her presence there and on tour some 16 weeks a year.
This may not be classic togetherness, but the Watsons claim their relationship is more solid because of, not in spite of, their fractionated lifestyle. Says Jack, "I've seen so many marriages where one partner's life becomes absorbed by a political figure. It's not healthy. Teena has a completely separate pursuit. Her commuting is more helpful than harmful." Adds Teena, "The only way a political marriage can work is for both parties to retain their independence. It's not my nature to give up a lot of freedom."
The Watsons met in Atlanta in 1974, at the home of friends. Jack had separated a year earlier from his first wife; Teena had been divorced since 1969. "He told me he was an anthropologist leaving for Mexico the next day," Teena says. "I could tell from that devilish look in his eyes he was lying. He has great charm. No woman can resist."
A week later, Teena remembers, "I called him at his law office and said, 'Come for a drink and tell me what you really do.' " Watson, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vanderbilt University, Harvard Law School and three years as a Marine officer, was a member of a prestigious Atlanta law firm. In 1966 Charles Kirbo, one of the senior partners, suggested that Jack ought to meet his friend Jimmy Carter, then a state senator with his eye on the governorship. "I realized it was no casual request," Jack says. "I took my motorcycle and drove down to Plains. I met the whole family and spent the day walking and talking with him."
Carter moved to the Georgia state-house in 1970 and two years later asked Watson to join his administration part-time as head of the Human Resources Department. Meanwhile he and Teena had become so close that when her son, Greg, 15, was killed in a 1975 Florida car crash, friends called Jack first so he could break the news. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he says. "She didn't cry at first; I cried." Part of a letter he wrote about Greg is carved on the boy's tombstone.
Watson stayed with Carter and began making plans for the presidential transition the moment Jimmy won the last primary in 1976. He assumed that he would be put in charge of it. Things didn't work out that way: Ham Jordan convinced the President that traditional politics—who owed what to whom—not Watson's abstract theories of government, should determine White House and Cabinet assignments, campaign rhetoric about new approaches notwithstanding.
Watson says, "The press magnified the situation." But he admits, "It was painful for Ham and me. He and I are different men with different sets of skills, but our relationship has always been good." The upshot, however, was that Jordan became in effect chief of staff while Watson, "not willing to be undone," accepted the lesser posts. One recent unenviable task: explaining to reporters how the President's energy program would affect the cities—and conceding that analysis of the problem had not yet been completed. Watson was also responsible for coordinating the federal government's dealings with Pennsylvania during the Three Mile Island reactor crisis.
Once Watson joined the White House staff, Teena came up from Atlanta to help find him a place to live. He shuttled back and forth every other weekend to see her—and his children, Melissa, 14, and Lincoln, 13, who were living with their mother. "The commuting went on for six months," Teena recalls, "and after that we decided we really wanted to be with each other. I guess I thought I would never marry again unless my special someone came along. I was used to my freedom. So, my special came along!"
They married in July 1977 and still insist that the President's edict against cohabitation was not a factor. "As in any relationship," explains bureaucrat Watson, "the time had come to choose: to go forward or to be terminated." Lillian Carter, now one of Teena's best friends, put it more simply. She told the prospective bride, "Teena Marie, you chased Jack till he caught up with you."
The Watsons moved into a house in Maryland near the Potomac River—which gives Teena's beloved family retainer, Heidi, who has cared for her since she was a girl, a chance to catch fresh perch and bluegills in the summer. (Adds Jack: "Heck, if I had known Heidi was part of the deal, we'd have gotten married a lot sooner.") Teena's daughter, Julie, 20, spends summers with them, as do Jack's children.
Teena's parents both died in the same year, and at the age of 20 she took over a dance studio her mother had run. Today she keeps in shape with eight workouts a week in Washington when she isn't performing in Atlanta. The company she helped start there is called the Carl Ratcliff Dance Theater. She also has a fashion design-retailing degree from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh but began teaching dance shortly after she married at 20.
In Washington, the Watsons occasionally throw small dinner parties but seldom mix with the White House Georgians. "We didn't see them in Atlanta," Teena says. "There's no reason to see them here."
Watson is a life-long felinephobe who now finds himself enjoying Teena's two cats at the foot of the bed, but has no trouble citing more substantial ways in which life with her has changed him. "I have a tendency to become absorbed in problems and Teena is not at all above getting on my case when she thinks I overdo it. She's another perspective, a connection into another world outside of politics. She's my anchor to leeward."
March 30, 2015
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