WHEN THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION opens for business this week in Houston, the program promises a climactic, made-for-TV moment as Barbara Bush addresses the GOP faithful in prime time. Her subject is scheduled to be that totem of the Republican campaign—family values—delivered as she is surrounded on the dais by her brood of five children and 12 grandchildren.

Now, on the eve of this carefully choreographed event, the long la-boo question of an alleged First Mistress has reared its ugly head. A front-page story in the sensationalist tabloid the New York Post reported that a new book quotes former U.S. Ambassador Louis Fields as saying that he arranged for then Vice President George Bush and his former appointments secretary Jennifer Fitzgerald to share a private cottage during an official visit to Geneva in 1984. "It became clear [they] were romantically involved," said Fields, according to The Power House, a book about influence peddling in the capital written by former congressional aide Susan B. Trento. The ambassador, who retired in 1985 and died of cancer in 1988, was said to have told at least three people that the rendezvous took place when Barbara Bush was out promoting her book about C. Fred, the family dog. Fields said the rendezvous, which had the couple "staying in adjoining bedrooms," was "so heavy-handed" that it made him "very uncomfortable."

Trento says that Fields, a U.S. Ambassador to the Geneva nuclear-disarmament talks, revealed details of the alleged Bush-Fitzgerald rendezvous to her husband, former CNN investigative reporter Joseph Trento, in 1986. Joseph Trento said he never reported the story because Fields was fearful of jeopardizing his career and refused to go on record.

When The story broke last week. Fitzgerald, now 59 and deputy chief of protocol in the State Department, was said to be out of the country on business and unreachable for comment. Not so President Bush, who responded sharply when a CNN reporter broached the topic at a news conference in Kennebunkport. ""I'm not going to take any sleazy questions like that," Bush bristled. "I'm not going to respond other than to say it's a lie." Fitzgerald's mother, 86-year-old Frances Patteson-Knight of McLean, Va., also denied the reports, which she says have "devastated Jennifer. "She had a very unhappy marriage, and she can't stand men," says Patteson-Knighl, who recalls her daughter once telling her, "I've been through so much. I couldn't have sex with anybody."

The public facts of Fitzgerald's life are sketchy. Her mother, who came from a prominent Boston family, married Brig. Douglas Henry Patteson-Knight, an English military officer. Their British-born daughter attended private schools in Virginia and later Mount Vernon College. In 1955 she married U.S. Army Pvt. Gerald FitzGerald, but they separated the following year and divorced in 1959. (She subsequently dropped the capitalization of the g in her name Fitzgerald.) She later worked for Bush's close friend and political mentor, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Dean Burch.

In 1974 she was appointed Bush's personal assistant after he was named U.S. envoy to Beijing; it was then, rumors say, that the alleged affair began. When Bush returned in 1975 to head the CIA, Fitzgerald came along as his aide. With the exception of a year in England at the U.S. Embassy, she stayed by the Vice President-side-technically as his appointments assistant but in reality as an all-powerful gatekeeper. Colleagues say she has an extremely tough office style and a fondness for shopping.

When Fitzgerald was transferred from the White House to become Bush's liaison to the Senate in 1985, rumors circulated that it was because their relationship had become a liability to Bush. After Bush became President. Fitzgerald was named to her present job at the State Department. Gossip surfaced again during the 1988 campaign, when the alternative L.A. Weekly ran a story naming Fitzgerald as Bush's longtime mistress and quoting an unnamed source that Fitzgerald had spoken openly of the affair. Last May, Hilary Clinton, fuming over stories about her husband's alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, complained in Vanity Fair that everyone knew there was another "Jennifer"—in Bush's life—but that no one was reporting it.

It is true that the controversy surrounding Fitzgerald has not been widely covered. Nonetheless her name is well known to influential people in the capital, and Fitzgerald's run-in with U.S. Customs was a hot topic in 1990. Fitzgerald was fined $648 for underestimating by $2,100 the value of a nutria-lined raincoat and a silver-fox cape that she purchased for 82.100 in Argentina.

The long-term political significance of last week's accusation was unclear. Most Washington analysts agreed that Bush's denial would quell the gossip. Bill Clinton, for one. wasn't gloating over George Bush's distress. "I didn't like it when it was done to me," he said, "and I don't like it when it's done to him."

PAULA CHIN
CHARLOTTE HAYES in Washington, D.C.

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