It was the lies that shocked. At least, that’s what they all said. Connoisseurs of priapic political romps often cite the Profumo Affair, a scandal that gripped Britain in the summer of 1963, as a classic of the genre. The British equivalent of the secretary of defense, John Profumo, was revealed sharing a nubile young thing called Christine Keeler with a Soviet spy, Eugene Ivanov. But in a performance of sustained and confident lying that dwarfs congressman Anthony Weiner’s short-lived bare-faced denials to camera, Profumo broke all the rules of the old boys’ club he thought he belonged to and which, he assumed, would close ranks and protect him.
And it is that particular brand of hubris, displayed by those who grow so used to power that they feel untouchable, that seems as rife now in our season of lust and exhibitionism as it was in the 1960s.
Unlike congressman Weiner, though, Profumo was not viewed as a rising star. He was a wealthy, socially ambitious but rather dim member of a Conservative government led by a brilliant old thespian, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. An assumption of honor among public servants was still thought to be credible. Even though half of London was consumed by salacious gossip about the details of the ménage a trois, Macmillan believed Profumo when he said (under half-hearted interrogation by colleagues) that Keeler was merely an “acquaintance.”
Members of Macmillan’s clubs didn’t lie.
Profumo’s most brazen performance was in front of the House of Commons, when he not only categorically denied the rumors but threatened to sue any newspaper that persisted with the story. One of the country’s tabloids was so intimidated that it returned to Profumo’s lawyers a letter it possessed from Profumo to Keeler with the somewhat lame rationale that it was “effusive but not conclusive.”
This shameful charade came to an end when Macmillan discovered that both the security service, MI5, and the police had colorful dossiers on the picaresque world Keeler had sprung from—and which included a bizarre story that the Russian agent, Ivanov, had asked Keeler to subtly pump Profumo for information on U.S. plans to position nuclear missiles in Europe.
As Macmillan realized he had been betrayed, his whole belief system, based on Edwardian values and social discretion, collapsed.
The Profumo Affair was a watershed in the public perception of politicians. Profumo had exhibited a sense of privileged entitlement in first helping himself to the loins of the Bardot-like nymph as though it was an act of generosity delivered from the upper class to the lower, and then by believing that his colleagues would be complicit because they, too, had the same impulses.
Does all of this seem familiar?
Perhaps part of Profumo’s reckless behavior was a reaction by him to the realization that the lower orders were suddenly having a lot more fun. This was, after all, the era of Swinging London. The pill, the spirited effect of The Beatles on youthful libidos and the vision of Lolita look-alikes in hot pants and knee-high boots parading the streets of London’s Chelsea was a combination that had both convention-breaking style and a powerful eroticism.
It wasn’t the lying that Profumo’s class really objected to. Lying to them was fine as long as it was never revealed. They hated the fact that by being caught out, Profumo had shattered the wall of hypocrisy—that he had exposed the moral gated community in which they lived. So when politicians close ranks and censure congressman Weiner for his lies it’s the same kind of cant. The age of sexting is as addictive as the age of the hot pants if you believe yourself to be invulnerable. How many others are there?
Clive Irving is the author of Anatomy of a Scandal, a study of the Profumo Affair, William Morrow, 1963