- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008


The Spitzer sex-and-politics scandal reminded me of an almost identical British sex-and-politics scandal 45 years ago. The public reaction in both countries shows how our two cultures and our scale of values differ.

In March 1963, John Profumo, 48, a Conservative Cabinet minister, was forced to resign as war minister not because of his affair with a call girl, as in the Spitzer affair, but because he lied about the affair in a speech to Parliament. He later recanted in another House of Commons speech, admitting he had lied about the affair. Even worse was the well-publicized fact that the call girl, Christine Keeler, 21, was sharing her favors with a Soviet intelligence officer, Yevgeny Ivanov, stationed at the Soviet Embassy. The scandal was the leading dinnertime topic. I was in London at the time researching a book on the British Conservative Party.

Profumo’s fateful meeting with Miss Keeler took place at the famed Cliveden estate, home of Viscount Astor, which became the eponymous setting for the Chamberlain appeasement policy toward Adolf Hitler. In December 1962, there was a shooting incident in swinging London involving some men involved with Miss Keeler and that set off a newspaper chase even though in those halcyon days the press usually respected private lives of British elites.

Raising issues of national security, a Labor member of Parliament, George Wigg, referred in the House of Commons to reports that Profumo was having an affair with Miss Keeler. Looking back, it is easy to conclude someone in a position to know the inside story was out to get Profumo and supplied Wigg with the lurid details that clearly Wigg could never have gotten on his own.

Replying to the accusation, Profumo allowed he knew Miss Keeler but denied any “impropriety” in the relationship. A few weeks later in June 1963, Profumo reversed himself. He admitted he had lied to the House of Commons about his liaison with Miss Keeler and resigned from office. His wife, movie star Valerie Hobson, stood by her man. The scandal shook the Conservative government, then headed by Harold Macmillan, and led to its defeat at the hands of Labor in the 1964 election.

As late as 1995 when ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher celebrated her 70th birthday she invited Profumo and sat him next to the Queen. British elite society is far more forgiving of its members’ derelictions.

“We could have forgiven him,” the wife of another Cabinet minister told me at the time, “for getting involved with a tart. Men are always doing it. What John Profumo could not be pardoned for was that he” — and here she distorted her face, eyes blazing — “lied to the House.” In fact Miss Keeler was quoted as saying, “However I dress it up, I was a spy and I am not proud of it.”

Whether or not she was a Soviet espionage agent intent on glamorizing herself as a modern Mata Hari, we will never know despite her confession otherwise.

As for Profumo, following his resignation he became a volunteer cleaning toilets at a charity building in London’s East End, a career Eliot Spitzer might consider. In time all was forgiven Profumo: In 1975 he was honored with a C.B.E., Commander of the British Empire, which was surely the right and proper thing to do for a Harrow-Oxford high achiever. He died in 2006 at age 91.

Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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