In politics, a new year inevitably brings tidings of hope and dreams of regeneration to those who have embarrassingly stumbled along the corridors of power. If only the change in calendar also carried with it a dollop of self-awareness. But for those brought down by sex scandals of their own creation, it is hard to relinquish the do-over fantasy that a few more months, another abject apology, or a clever new media strategy will somehow inspire amnesia -- or, at least, forgiveness -- among the voters.
How else to explain the preference for being obtuse over being irrelevant? Defrocked New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (insert your favorite Client No. 9 joke) is actively contemplating a bid for statewide office in 2010. Disgraced South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (insert your favorite hiking-the-Appalachian-Trail joke) issued a statement hailing himself as a "stalwart ally of the taxpayer" after the South Carolina legislature decided to censure rather than impeach him. And damaged Nevada Sen. John Ensign (insert any joke about having your family give $96,000 to the husband of the woman you were having an affair with) felt confident enough to take the lead on the Senate floor in challenging the constitutionality of the health care reform bill.
Then there is the derided John Edwards (insert your favorite not-my-baby joke), who, according to Politico
, spent three days before Christmas in El Salvador helping missionaries build houses for the poor. Sixteen months after Edwards went on "Nightline" to confess to an affair with Rielle Hunter, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee may belatedly grasp the permanent public life consequences for philanderers with beloved cancer-ravaged wives. Edwards may also be trying to salvage the last tatters of his reputation before the February publication of a tell-all account of the scandal by former aide Andrew Young.
The unavoidable truth is that the bipartisan quartet of Spitzer, Sanford, Ensign and Edwards flamed out in such a starburst of scandal that there will be no second acts in politics, no return engagements with suddenly forgiving voters. The problem was not the sex or even a gentleman-never-tells deceit, but the jaw-dropping betrayal of public trust. Spitzer, who flamboyantly prosecuted prostitution rings as state attorney general, was caught patronizing them. Sanford was, of course, the AWOL governor, and Ensign is currently under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee because of charges that he acted inappropriately in trying to set up the husband of his mistress in the lobbying business.
Edwards briefly doing penance in El Salvador brings to mind the legacy of a man who understood proper behavior in the wake of a banner-headlined sex scandal. Sorry, the correct answer is not Bill Clinton. Rather, it is the British politician John Profumo, who resigned in 1963 as Her Majesty's secretary of state for war after lying to the House of Commons about his dalliance with a call girl named Christine Keeler. Among the titillating details that elevated the Profumo Affair above the normal run of bizarre British bedroom behavior was that Keeler had been sleeping with a KGB agent, who was the Soviet naval attaché at the embassy in London. Three months after he deceived the House of Commons about Keeler, Profumo, while on vacation in Venice, remorsefully told his wife, the actress Valerie Hobson, about the affair. She pressed him to return immediately to London and publicly confess. Afterwards, Hobson stood loyally by her husband until her death in 1998.
Without Christine Keeler, there was a possibility that the debonair Profumo would have become a Conservative prime minister in the late 1960s or 1970s. But Profumo did not need to move to 10 Downing St. to be revered in British history. Within weeks of being elected to Parliament during the darkest period of World War II in 1940, Profumo joined in casting what may been the most important legislative vote of the 20th century. In May 1940 -- with Norway falling to the Nazis and talk of a separate peace with Hitler gaining in London -- Profumo was one of 33 backbench Conservative MPs who broke with their party on a vote of confidence to force the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Without this Conservative rebellion, Winston Churchill would not have been prime minister during the Battle of Britain.
Just 48 years old in 1963 when he resigned from the Cabinet and the House of Commons, Profumo (blessed with a family fortune, like most British political leaders of that era) could have spent years plotting a comeback or simply retired to his country house in Hertfordshire. Instead, a few months later Profumo quietly contacted Toynbee Hall
, a 19th
-century charitable mission in the East End of London. For the next four decades, until his death
in 2006, he worked nearly full time as a settlement house volunteer (and later president of Toynbee Hall), aiding alcoholics, ex-convicts and other down-and-outers. This was not made-for-television charity, even though Profumo was honored for his work at Toynbee Hall by Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1975. Profumo never tried publicly to justify himself or his conduct. He did not cooperate with the inevitable books and movies about the scandal. But as a friend once said of Profumo, "No one judges Jack Profumo more harshly than he does himself. He says he has never known a day since it happened when he has not felt real shame."
Redemption is a word that is almost as over-used these days as hero. An afternoon's cry with Oprah seems enough to begin to rehabilitate a reputation, and a stint at the Betty Ford Clinic (or in federal prison) appears to be the perfect résumé builder for an ex-politician to transform himself into a talk show host. But Profumo achieved redemption through understated deeds rather than with photo-op gestures. Sadly, it seems improbable than any contemporary tarnished politician will ever match John Profumo's dignity in disgrace.