Boner, Peel and a reporter’s call spark a city’s embarrassment

Friday, July 10, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 28
By Lyle Graves

Boner and Peel arrive in Nashville after their wedding in Hawaii.

-- Nashville Public Library, Special Collections

Nashville’s mayor broke into a broad smile and funny walk, pointing across the main dining room at the old TGI Friday’s on Elliston Place to a young reporter seated at a long table with eight colleagues and friends.

“She interrupted me while I was having sex tonight,” he bellowed, stopping the pseudo-Steve Martin “wild and crazy guy” strut and pointing even more animatedly as if to draw the whole restaurant into the already-absurd scene. Two burly men, presumably bodyguards, stood at his side, neither sharing his obvious amusement.

“She interrupted me while I was having sex tonight,” he repeated, just in case any of the late-night crowd didn’t hear him the first time. A few heads turned and laughed, not sure what the joke was about but enjoying his performance.

Katherine Bouma, the young Metro reporter for the city’s afternoon paper, the Nashville Banner, turned a shade of red that matched the TGI Friday’s décor. Others at the table sat in horror.

On the table in front of me was the end of Bill Boner’s political career. The vintage 1990 dot matrix printout, complete with lines of punched holes down both sides and still folded accordion-style, told the story of a phone call Katherine had made earlier in the evening at my request.

The mayor, still married to his third wife, had apparently given his girlfriend, a professional singer named Traci Peel, an engagement ring she was proudly wearing onstage while performing with her band.

We suspected The Tennessean would have a story the next day on the mayor being simultaneously married and engaged. Katherine, who covered the mayor’s office, Metro Council and Metro government in general as a member of the Banner’s night crew, was less than enthusiastic about me – the night Metro editor – asking her to call the mayor at home, after hours, to question him about his love life.

It was the night staff’s job to cover anything breaking after the regular staff had gone home for the day. And when the daytime staff began rolling in at 5 a.m., those editors would be expecting something on Boner’s marital double dip.

Katherine, professional beyond her twenty-something exterior, reached the mayor around 7 p.m. and got more from the phone call than she had anticipated.

Her face went instantly to the same TGI Friday’s red she would emanate later that night. She frantically waved me to her desk and tilted the handset of the phone so we both could listen to the mayor and his fiancé let her in on their joke.

Boner and Peel, which now sounds oddly like a Comedy Central series, spent the next several minutes talking about the sex that Bouma had interrupted, both laughing like teenagers.

Peel then upped the ante, bragging the mayor could keep their sexual sessions going for seven hours at a time. It was a paraphrase that would define the mayor’s downfall and make the city (Boner? Seven hours? Seriously?) the butt of late-night jokes and headline writers everywhere. It was a meme before they existed.

But first came a serious question: Would we actually write a story detailing the mayor’s sex life as told firsthand? Believe what you will, but journalists then and now take no pleasure in ruining a career.

Katherine and I sat for what seemed like hours on the old entrance steps to 1100 Broadway, the building shared by Nashville Banner and Tennessean, me breathing her second-hand chain smoke as we took turns debating the “yes, we write it,” and “seriously?” sides of the “do we write the story” argument.

Our decision, which was never really in doubt, came down to this: This guy is the elected mayor of a major city. If this is who he is, people have the right to know.

Katherine got to work as I conferred with editors higher up the food chain. Beyond the obvious question – “Are you serious?” – our editors wanted a complete retelling of the night’s events.

“Are you sure?”

“Is that exactly what she said?”

“They knew it was Katherine and she was calling for a story?”

“Are you sure?”

The story was written and given to me for editing. And it was scrutinized like few stories before or since. Katherine paced nervously, ducking outside for several smokes to ease the tension.

Finally, long after we normally would have gone home for the night, it was done. I printed a copy to take home before we left for TGI Fridays, meeting spouses, co-workers and Katherine’s boyfriend long after the agreed-to time.

We desperately needed to take the edge off what had been a surreal evening. After ordering drinks, I dropped the printout on the table for what must have been a 20th read, tuning out the rest of the table.

That’s when the mayor, our mayor, fresh from his self-described night of passion began his noisy approach. I dropped the printout into my lap and did my best to keep from hyperventilating. It’s the closest I’ve come before or since.

The story ran in the next day’s edition of the Banner with predictable results. On consecutive days, Boner and Peel denied what they had told Katherine, said they were misquoted and, finally, that they were joking. TV cameras followed them everywhere.

The story simmered through the rest of the summer, culminating with the infamous mid-October appearance on “The Phil Donahue Show,” a syndicated, much-tamer predecessor to Jerry Springer. More like Oprah.

The Banner was invited to have Katherine appear on the show but declined in a flash of common sense. Bruce Dobie, a former Banner reporter who was then editor of the Nashville Scene, saw an opportunity for publicity and took it, appearing as the concerned-for-the-city reporter. Les Jameson, who hosted a general interest afternoon radio show on WLAC-AM, also appeared to repeatedly tell the listening audience how embarrassing the whole episode was for Nashville.

Peel sang “Rocky Top,” accompanied by Boner on harmonica. It was a horror show for Nashville.

Boner, an ineffective mayor before the incident, was done. He left office at the end of his term and quietly took a job running a pallet factory across the Kentucky line. It didn’t last.

Soon there were reports that he had been spotted delivering Yellow Pages around Nashville. There also, as I recall, was a restaurant management job in Atlanta, as well as a stint with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services as a lobbyist. He could be seen umpiring softball games and officiating junior league and high school football.

The marriage to Peel quickly unraveled. She says she caught him having an affair with a hairdresser.

But his greatest legacy emerged from his worst moment. The whole “seven hours” routine and the appearance on Donahue was a wakeup call for Nashville, which answered by electing a series of serious, smart and accomplished mayors – Phil Bredesen, Bill Purcell and Karl Dean – who helped transform Nashville from joke to juggernaut.

Maybe things would have gone that way even if Boner had never picked up the phone. Or maybe he was the Anthony Weiner of his day and was simply incapable of not performing a career-ending act.

Whatever the case, Nashville woke up from this nightmare and made a decision to become something better.

I’m glad Katherine made the call.

Lyle Graves is executive editor and general manager of The Ledger. He served a variety of editor roles, including political editor, at the Nashville Banner from 1989 until it closed in 1998.