When the Press Conferences Stopped

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

At first I thought it was a bad joke when I heard late yesterday that Anthony Weiner would be holding a press conference to discuss more tweets of ill repute. Hadn’t we been here before? Hadn’t we done this?

My only moment of hope was it had all been a bad dream and we’d see my friend Andrew Breitbart urged by the New York press to take to the podium.

Well, we know that can’t happen. But something can. Politicians who make mistakes, mistakes that expose their families and bring us all down into the gutter of “sexting” talk, can do something else.

I’m a big believer in redemption. And in the importance of public policy and the public square. Which is precisely why sometimes it is simply time to exit the stage. In due respect for voters and public service, and because politics isn’t everything, already.

A few weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote about a pol who got that, back in 1963. She wrote:    

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, Peggy writes. And he actually did! She continues:

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.”

New York politicians could certainly afford close encounters with the virtue. Some offline ones. 

When Anthony Weiner’s Twitter scandal broke, I wrote about a light in Columbus, Ohio – a Catholic seminary, the Josephinum, drawing in self-sacrificial men seeking to be spiritual leaders in a moral renewal — a  great awakening, as Carl Anderson from the Knights of Columbus has talked about here. It’s what the gathering in Rio this week is all about. At the time I wrote: 

The world needs people of virtue, who strive each day to live according to principle, who expect more of themselves and encourage the same in others, not through sermons but through infectiousness. The world needs men who are not enslaved by low expectations; so much of our culture is an insult to men and fatherhood. The world needs heroes, who will sacrifice in witness and service to the truth. 

Do we ever. I’m fairly sure that’s the attraction people of all and no faith have to Pope Francis. Not only does he model it, but the love of God within him is like a magnet drawing the world into the love he lives in.