FORGET WHAT YOU’VE READ or heard about everyone’s favorite war hero coming between one of Houston society’s perennially boldfaced couples. Yes, it’s true that energy baron Bob Mosbacher recently ended his alimony payments to cosmetics queen Georgette Mosbacher, who divorced him in 1998. And, yes, the cutoff did occur shortly after her status as a national co-chair of John McCain‘s campaign for the White House was trumpeted in the pages of the New York Observer, and that her subsequent lawsuit supposes revenge on the part of her ex-husband, a longtime Bush family pal who’s supporting George W.‘s Oval Office bid. If you scratch below the surface, however, it’s plain that the Mosbach-biting isn’t about ideology but etymology.

On June 23, 1997, contemplating a split after a dozen years of marriage, the Mosbachers executed what might be called a “mid-nup” — a document outlining who would get what should a division of assets become necessary. They’d been down this aisle before, having signed a pre-nup in March 1985 and amended it three times since, but the new deal was intended to supersede all that. Alongside an intimate listing of their separate property (at the time, for instance, she owned a 1984 Maserati; he had a 1997 BMW convertible), the “Postmarital Agreement” spelled out Bob’s “obligations”: He would pay Georgette $32,064 a month, plus $28,000 a year toward the cost of their full-time car and driver in New York, plus her life and health insurance premiums for three years. The arrangement would be terminated only in the event of his death, her death, or her remarriage or “cohabitation” (that is, if she lived with the same man for four months in a six-month period). But Georgette also had to agree not to make “disparaging statements” about Bob. And those would be? Alas, the phrase wasn’t defined, and that oversight is at the center of the current squabbling.

In a letter dated February 15 — two weeks after the Observer story was published — Bob’s lawyer, Robert J. Piro, notified Georgette’s lawyer, Tom Alexander, that she had violated the disparagement clause of the mid-nup and that therefore the alimony payments would end immediately. At issue was an exchange with the Observer reporter, George Gurley, in which Georgette tearily griped about Bob’s “betrayal” (“When the one person you trusted that was your best friend on earth betrays you, it’s, I don’t even know that I can put it in words. . . . I feel like I’ve been permanently harmed”). Piro wrote that there had been “numerous warnings” before, the implication being that although Bob had chosen not to play hardball with Georgette when she’d previously attacked him in the Washington Times (“He betrayed me”) and other publications, the Observer piece was the last straw.

Alexander acknowledges that his client has a history of saying uncharitable things about her ex, but he thinks the alimony acrimony is presidential preference posturing. “McCain was the turning point,” he says. “They claim it’s just a coincidence that the McCain connection appears for the first time in the article they cite. None of her previous utterances had to do with McCain or the Bushes. As Sherlock Holmes might have said, ‘I do not believe in coincidence.'” (Neither Piro nor his client will comment on this or any other aspect of the case, citing pending litigation.) Anyway, Alexander says, Georgette believes she can prove a betrayal occurred — she claims Bob left her for another woman, though Bob denies it — which would be important if truth is a defense against a charge of disparagement, as he believes it to be. “If you call me old and fat, which I am, you haven’t disparaged me,” says Alexander, who adds that if the alimony doesn’t start up again, Georgette may seek to reopen the divorce settlement.

Only the courts can rule on the legal definition of disparage, but mere mortals like Barbara Wallraff are free to kibitz about the common usage of the term. The semantics savant, who’s been writing The Atlantic Monthly‘s “Word Court” column since 1995 and recently published a book of the same name, notes that according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “disparage” implies the communication of a low opinion. In her view, whether the opinion is true is irrelevant; all Bob has to do is show that Georgette, in the parlance of politics, went negative. “For God’s sake, they got divorced — of course she’s going to disparage him,” Wallraff jokes. “Though it seems to me that for $32,000 a month, she could say a few nice things.”