John Profumo has died. You may not have heard of him. Few people have, especially in the United States. But for years he was a prominent British politician—Secretary of State for War during the early 1960s under Harold MacMillan. In 1963 it was discovered that Profumo had had marital relations with a prostitute who also was involved with a Soviet military official. At first Profumo denied the charges, but soon he admitted them and resigned from office.
Why mention John Profumo? Because of a number of other people you may, in fact, remember. Take, for example, Anthony Weiner. Mr. Weiner was a Congressman from New York, though he is most famous for having engaged in flamboyant “sexting” with a number of women. After publicity chased him from office he chose to … run for office again. His campaign for mayor of New York City was looked upon as a potential “big comeback” until it was derailed by revelations of yet more “sexting.” Mr. Weiner ended his campaign by making a vulgar gesture to members of the press. But Mr. Weiner is not to be kept down. He took a movie role (“Sharknado 3”), is heard from in the press, and continues to work on some sort of new public comeback.
Then there is the once and current South Carolina Congressman, Mark Sanford. Mr. Sanford is a lifelong politician who also was Governor of South Carolina for eight years. While Governor, he disappeared, seemingly from the face of the earth, for a week. Having told his staff that he would be hiking the Appalachian Trail, Mr. Sanford actually was in Argentina with his mistress. Censured for his actions, which included private use of public funds, Mr. Sanford served out his term and considered running for President, but settled for taking back his old Congressional seat.
Sadly and nauseatingly enough, the list could go on.
Then there is John Profumo. After his disgrace, Mr. Profumo spent the remaining five decades of his life working tirelessly, and distinctly out of the limelight, for the poor. Soon after he resigned from office he began working at Toynbee Hall, a charitable foundation in London’s impoverished East End, doing janitorial work. Stories differ as to whether he began by washing dishes or cleaning toilets; he chose not to settle that particular debate. But Mr. Profumo, who inherited money and a title of nobility, spent the remainder of his life working for this specific charity and community in a number of capacities without ever using it to reinsert his name into public consciousness.
Toynbee Hall was founded as a “settlement house”—part of a movement that sought to bring rich and poor people together into close knit communities as a means of developing a way of life that would end poverty. The settlement house movement began in significant part as a kind of evangelical set of good works and in the United States for decades encouraged an alternative to mere bureaucratic welfare. The politics of some of the movement’s leaders and inheritors, including Britain’s socialist Prime Minister Clement Atlee, could be distinctly left-wing. Mr. Porfumo, however, remained a Tory as he “walked the walk” of spiritual and physical solidarity with the poor.
Despite his refusal to seek any publicity for his charity work, it would not be right to say that Mr. Profumo was immune to the call for public redemption. For example, a mere twelve years after his disgrace he accepted the honor of being named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire on account of his charity work. That is correct, a “mere” twelve years. Twelve minutes seems too long for most disgraced public figures to wait for redemption today, if they even admit that they need it. What is more, Mr. Profumo shunned the limelight even after he accepted the honor and made no excuses, let alone justifications, for his actions. Instead he sought to atone for them, building a new, more modest life devoted to others.
It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Profumo’s virtue as the result of cultural context and social circumstance. That is, in that more “Puritan” age before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, conduct like his, when publicly exposed, was significantly more shaming than it is in our liberated age. What is more, people were less forgiving of such expressions of love outside of marriage, such that public forgiveness was much harder to come by. Mistresses have never been terribly embarrassing to French politicians and, if Bill Clinton is any example, are becoming acceptable among Americans. As with so much else, we Americans, and even the British, now are more tolerant, Europeanized, and “progressive.”
There probably is a great deal of truth to this argument, so far as it goes. Sexual conduct is no longer seen as closely tied with virtue, let alone public virtue. So much the worse for we who dwell on the other side of “liberation.” That a man who ignores his wedding vows, taken before God, should be trusted to live up to his public duties seems frankly odd, and all the evidence from Mr. Clinton’s administration points to quite the contrary position. Then again, marriage now, we are told, is a creation of the state and so should be seen as just another contract, the provisions of which may be avoided by the clever.
Sexual morality is, after all, merely a part of morality. And shaming is not solely a sexual issue. The attack on sexual mores was merely part of an overall assault on the role of custom and tradition in shaping people’s conduct individually and as groups. Thus, it should not be surprising that shame itself has been all but driven from public discourse, save in those instances where ideological notions of justice (e.g. one’s position on same sex marriage) are seen as dictating one’s fitness to serve in public office, or even run a private business.
Americans now seek to be judged on their political opinions, not on their conduct. It is not simply that Weiner, Sanford, and others see no need for atonement where sexual impropriety is involved. We have seen repeatedly over the last few decades more mundane villains (corporate thieves of one sort or another) who likewise feel that they have nothing for which to apologize, though they generally make sure to flaunt their liberal bona-fides as they argue for clemency.
This is not to deny that villains have sought redemption in the past, or even that villains have succeeded in being hailed as heroes. The rich and powerful always have had the capacity (and often the desire) to justify their selfish conduct as somehow “good for America,” or Britain, or wherever. Some have worked to deserve redemption, some have slunk away, and some have gone the Weiner route, demanding to be let back onto the playground of public life. Today, of course, redemption is sought through taking the “right” (meaning of course “left”) positions on political issues, whatever the public sin.
So far so political. But there is more. Our mass society and the cult of celebrity it has made possible increase the call to shamelessness. “Reality” stars flaunt their vices for fame and fortune. Gutter-worthy conduct is glorified on the screen and those who portray it find themselves glorified. Sports figures shuttle from prison to locker room to television studio. Small wonder, then, that disgraceful politicians seek to get in on the free forgiveness. As a people trades interpersonal relations and the ties of community for mass entertainments, we should not be surprised that ratings trump character.
And, speaking of trumps, we now have a Presidential candidate who believes he can enter the White House on the basis of his “name brand” and claims that he has piled up billions of dollars from a combination of political manipulation and self-promotion. Divorces? Infidelities? Multiple bankruptcies? Sheer rudeness? Apologies are for “losers,” not creatures of publicity.
The real “comeback” we all need is a renewal of our capacity for shame in ourselves and willingness to call shameful conduct what it is in our public figures, no matter how entertaining we may find them, their mistresses, or their hair.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.