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.
Unlike modern political sex scandals, which are cold and strange, it was what a scandal should be: dark, glamorous. Human. No furtive pictures of privates sent to strangers, no haggling over the prostitute’s bill.
President Kennedy loved hearing about the story, and when he was on the phone with his friend the British prime minister, as he often was, asking advice on Cuba or de Gaulle, he was as likely to be asking, sympathetically but pointedly as one who loves gossip would: How’s it going with Profumo? What’s the latest?
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. Then, three years later, he declared himself rehabilitated. In the midst of a classic Fleet Street scrum—”Do you still see whores?” demanded a hack from the Sun—Profumo announced he’d deepened and matured and was standing for Parliament “to serve the public.” Of course, he said, “It all depends on the voters, whether they can be forgiving. It’s all in their hands. I throw my candidacy on their mercy.”
Well, people didn’t want to think they were unmerciful. Profumo won in a landslide, worked his way up to party chief, and 12 years later ran for prime minister, his past quite forgotten, expunged, by his mounting triumphs.
Wait—that’s not what happened. Nothing like that happened! It’s the opposite of what happened.
Because Profumo believed in remorse of conscience—because he actually had a conscience—he could absorb what happened and let it change him however it would. In a way what he believed in was reality. He’d done something terrible—to his country, to his friends, to strangers who had to explain the headlines about him to their children.
He never knew political power again. He never asked for it. He did something altogether more confounding.
He did the hardest thing for a political figure. He really went away. He went to a place that helped the poor, a rundown settlement house called Toynbee Hall in the East End of London. There he did social work—actually the scut work of social work, washing dishes and cleaning toilets. He visited prisons for the criminally insane, helped with housing for the poor and worker education.
And it wasn’t for show, wasn’t a step on the way to political redemption. He worked at Toynbee for 40 years.
He didn’t give interviews, never wrote a book, didn’t go on TV. Alistair Horne: “Profumo . . . spent the rest of his life admirably dedicated to valuable good works, most loyally supported by his wife. At regular intervals, some journalist writing ‘in the public interest’ would rake up the old story to plague the ruined man and cause him renewed suffering. His haunted, unsmiling face was a living epitaph to the ‘Swinging Sixties.’”
In November 2003, to mark the 40th anniversary of his work, Profumo gave an interview to an old friend. “Jack,” said W.F. Deedes, “what have you learnt from this place?” After a pause for thought, Profumo said: “Humility.”
He was president of Toynbee by then, respected, but nothing quite said what needed saying like what happened at Margaret Thatcher’s 70th birthday party, in 1995. To show their countrymen what he’d done—and what they thought of what he’d done—they invited him, walked him through, and put him in a particular place. They seated him next to the queen. People wonder about the purpose of establishments. That is the purpose of establishments.
When he died in 2006, at 91, the reliably ironic Daily Telegraph wore its heart on its sleeve. “No one in public life ever did more to atone for his sins; no one behaved with more silent dignity as his name was repeatedly dragged through the mud; and few ended their lives as loved and revered by those who knew him.”
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So what are we saying? You know.
We’re saying the answer to the politician’s question, “What is the optimum moment at which to come back from a big sex scandal, and how do I do it?” is this:
“You are asking the wrong question.”
The right questions would go something like: “What can I do to stop being greedy for power, attention and adulation? How can I come to understand that the question is not the public’s capacity to forgive, but my own capacity to exercise sound judgment and regard for others?
“How can I stop being a manipulator of public emotions and become the kind of person who generates headlines that parents are relieved—grateful—to explain to their children?”
And of course the answer is: You can do what John Profumo did. You can go away. You can do something good. You can help women instead of degrading them, help your culture and your city instead of degrading them.
You can become a man.