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Thu, Mar 21, 2002 - Page 19 News List

GE's `Neutron Jack' faces nuking by wife

More than a match for her heavyweight husband, Mrs. Jack Welch has proven as keen and ruthless as any corporate bigwig by arranging to neatly divest her husband of half his billion-dollar fortune and end up smelling like a rose

By Michael Lewis  /  BLOOMBERG , BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA

I assume I'm not the only one who feels a tiny shudder of delight whenever I open the newspaper and find another story about Jack Welch's sex scandal.

A few months ago, the 66-year-old former chairman of General Electric Co agreed to give an interview to 42-year-old Suzy Wetlaufer, the editor of the Harvard Business Review, and then wound up giving her more than that.

A few weeks later, Wetlaufer received a phone call from Mrs. Jack Welch who, in asking Wetlaufer how she could claim to be an objective journalist while sleeping with her subject, issued what amounted to a thinly veiled threat to expose the affair.

Spooked, Wetlaufer went to her superiors and exposed herself.

Rather than kill their Welch interview, the HBR sent a pair of reporters to reinterview Welch, and the unsurprisingly toadying Q&A duly appeared last month.

Meanwhile, HBR's rank and file got wind of Wetlaufer's conduct and became enraged. They called for her head, and nearly got it. But then Jack Welch interceded on her behalf -- or at any rate made a few calls to Boston lawyers and Harvard bigwigs. In the end, Wetlaufer lost her title as editor, but kept her office and her salary. There the matter rests, at least for the moment.

Serious people disagree on the meaning of these strange events. Some view it as an excuse to reopen the hoary question of how close a journalist should permit herself (or himself) to get to the subject of a story. Others argue that Jack Welch's sex life is not the slightest bit interesting, and we should all be focusing on the way the Harvard Business Review routinely allows corporate big shots like Welch to manipulate its copy.

But the Harvard Business Review has never pretended to be anything other than what it is -- a mechanism for making business sound really, really complicated, and for making business people feel as if they are deep thinkers. And in any case, so many business journalists have figuratively crawled into bed with Jack Welch for so many years it seems less a shock than a satire that one intrepid woman did it literally.

Anyway, I find it hard to become worked up by the journalistic-ethics angle of the story. What's interesting to me is how thoroughly Jack Welch has been trussed up by his wife.

Jane Welch, his second wife, waited until her husband stepped into the noose she had laid on the ground, then yanked the rope and sent the poor man flying skyward. Welch may be one of the shrewdest, most self-interested men ever to enter a corporate boardroom, but he met his match in the woman he married.

Note first that Jane Welch precipitated the entire scandal.

Without her phone call to Wetlaufer, none of us would have known that Jack Welch had sex. Note also how, after making her phone call, Mrs. Welch stepped away and let the media do her dirty work.

In her 13 years of marriage to the chief of the world's most valuable company, Jane Welch obviously learned a great deal about managing the press. She knew better than to publicize her husband's infidelity herself. Doing so would cast her as just another interested party and, besides, it was unnecessary. All that was needed was to recast her husband's dalliance with Wetlaufer as a matter of journalistic ethics, and journalists would find ways to make it play and play.

I think I know exactly when Jack Welch remembered why he married Mrs. Welch in the first place: when she demanded her divorce. If Mrs. Welch, a former attorney, was so shocked and hurt by her husband's infidelity, she might have acted when she discovered it.

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