Fifty years ago today, John Profumo, a war minister in Harold Macmillan’s Government resigned when he admitted to having lied over his affair with Christine Keeler, a call girl.
Looking back, it is remarkable that the resignation of a junior minister over a five week affair that was already eighteen months old when the news broke should have snowballed into one of the most celebrated political and sexual scandals of the twentieth century.
But the fact that Christine Keeler had also slept with a Soviet spy, Eugene Ivanov at the height of the Cold War, exposed the Macmillan Government’s inability to handle matters of national security.
It was Profumo’s decision to lie to the Conservative Chief Whip and to the House of Commons that finished him, and did terrible damage to Harold Macmillan’s reputation for competence. Macmillan, who had never been able to deal with any matters sexual following his wife Dorothy’s long-running affair with Lord Boothby, shut his ears to the revelations instead of nipping them in the bud.
The result was a dreadful performance in the House of Commons in which the Prime Minister begged for their forgiveness. Macmillan showed himself to be wholly out of touch with the changing morals in society with his revealing admission that: ‘I do not live among young people much myself.’
The press had a field day. Satirical cartoons in Private Eye ran with ‘We’ve never had it so often!’ and ‘Life’s better under a Conservative.’ Mobs of people queued around the block to buy Lord Denning’s sometimes salacious report into the goings on.
Even to this day, the Profumo Scandal lives on in the public memory. Not only has it been the subject of a 1989 film, but now Andrew Lloyd Webber is about to launch a musical based around the tragic case of Stephen Ward, the doctor at the heart of the scandal who committed suicide after his dramatic trial and conviction for living off immoral earnings.
But what of the politician who resigned, John, known to his friends as Jack Profumo? Almost immediately, Jack dedicated his life to charitable work in London’s East End. He famously asked to help with the washing up at a refuge centre, and stayed thirty years, earning himself a CBE. Such was his public rehabilitation he was even invited to Mrs Thatcher’s 70th birthday celebrations, sitting next to the Queen. As Thatcher remarked, ‘It’s time to forget the Keeler business. His has been a very good life.’
So, is it possible for male politicians (let’s face it, it is usually men, isn’t it?) to find redemption after scandal or defeat?
From a British perspective, it seems as if the disgraced can slowly make their way back into public life. Jonathan Aitken, the Tory MP jailed for perjury, found redemption through faith. Michael Portillo, though never disgraced, transformed himself from a hate figure after losing his seat in the 1997 election, and is now a popular media presenter and commentator.
The common thread for those who have been successful in terms of redemption seems to be making an immediate and public statement of contrition, followed by furious attempts to be seen as politicians who are prepared to mix with ordinary people. So, Aitken helped write prisoners’ letters in jail, correcting their grammar, while Portillo, after a very dignified defeat, variously became a single parent and a hospital porter in order to demonstrate that he had a heart.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Minister recently released from jail should follow such a path. His recent admission that prison was a ‘humbling and sobering experience’ is a good start. Now, he needs to busy himself with all manner of charity work.
In America, the media loves a political comeback, and the public, thanks to a strong belief in God, are very forgiving. Bill Clinton escaped impeachment for having an affair with ‘that woman, Miss Lewinsky’. More recently, when Mark Sanford, a disgraced South Carolina politician won back his old Congressional seat last month, he thanked ‘a God not just of second chances, but third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth chances’. Meanwhile, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress in 2011 following lewd online exchanges with a woman, is now running for Mayor of New York.
What goes unreported, however, in all this talk of male political redemption and the public’s powers of forgiveness is the enduring loyalty (apart from the notable exception of Vicky Pryce) of so many women to their husbands, despite their many indiscretions. Apparently, Jack Profumo told his wife Valerie, about their affair in Venice. She returned to London at her husband’s side, and stayed there for the rest of her life. Little is made of Valerie’s devotion to the leprosy charity, Lepra. And nothing is made of the emotional cross she had to bear after what must have been a crushing revelation.
As such, there can be redemption for politicians – whether it be from a sex scandal or another indiscretion over expenses and dishonesty – but the moral is this: it’s best not to lie in the first place. The truth will always emerge.
Mark Stuart has recently contributed a chapter to a French book on political scandal, edited by David Fee and Jean-Claude Sergeant entitled Ethique, Politique et Corruption au Royaume-Uni, published by Presses Universitaires de Provence.