Monday, August 05, 2013

A Scandalized Politician...Quite Unlike the Others

What a scandal it was. It had everything—beautiful women, spies, a semi-dashing government minister married to a movie star, a society doctor who functioned, essentially, as a pimp. And the backdrop was an august English country estate where intrigue had occurred before...

It was 50 years ago, the spring and summer of 1963. The prime minister was Harold Macmillan, the last Conservative giant before Margaret Thatcher but more broadly beloved, in part because he wasn’t all that conservative. He was in tune with his times, until he wasn’t. He’d been in government 11 years.

It came out that the secretary of state for war, John Profumo, 48, had become involved with a group of people who gathered at Cliveden, the country estate of the Astor family, about whom controversy had swirled since World War II. Years later Macmillan would write in his diary: “The old ‘Cliveden’ set was disastrous politically. The new ‘Cliveden’ set is said to be equally disastrous morally.”

It was for Profumo. At a pool party hosted by the society doctor, he met a young woman, 19-year-old Christine Keeler, who was either a dancer or a prostitute depending on the day and claimant. They commenced an affair. But Miss Keeler was also, she later said, romantically involved with the Soviet naval attaché assigned to London. Yevgeny Ivanov was there the day Profumo met her. And as all but children would have known, a Soviet military attaché was a Soviet spy.

The affair lasted a few months and was over by 1962. But there was a letter. And there were rumors. They surfaced in Parliament, where the Labour Party smelled blood.

When Profumo was caught, he panicked—and lied. That’s what did him in. And his lie was emphatic: He’d bring libel charges if the allegations were repeated outside the House.

Nearby, as he spoke, sat Harold Macmillan, glumly hoping or believing in his minister’s innocence. When Profumo, on the urging of his wife, came clean, Macmillan was left looking like a doddering Tory fool, a co-conspirator in a coverup, or at least a bungler of a major national-security question. Mortally wounded, he considered resigning. His government collapsed a year later.

Profumo—humiliated on every front page as an adulterer, a liar, a man of such poor judgment and irresponsibility that he mindlessly cavorted with enemy spies—was finished. Alistair Horne, in his biography of Macmillan, wrote of Profumo after the scandal as a “wretched” figure, “disgraced and stripped of all public dignities.”

Everyone hoped he’d disappear. He did…

And the rest of the story?

The rest of the story is brilliant and yes, even inspiring -- especially when described by the stylish prose of Peggy Noonan. I missed it the first time around (it was published last month by the Wall Street Journal) but I'm delighted I came across it this weekend. I think you'll find it most interesting reading. So here's Peggy Noonan's whole article, "How to Find Grace After Disgrace New York's politicians could learn from an Englishman's example."