More Profumo, Less Weiner—or “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd.”*
The April 14th issue of The New York Times Magazine featured a cover story on former representative Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and his wife Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton. Weiner is inevitably described as “the disgraced ex-congressman” who tweeted a photo of his erection (covered by his briefs). Weiner thought he was sending the image to a 21-year-old Seattle college student (female). Instead, he accidentally sent the photo to his 45,000 Twitter followers. As Dr. Spielvogel, Alexander Portnoy’s shrink, says at the end of Philip Roth’s great novel, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
All this silliness occurred in 2011, and after some days of prevarications, Weiner resigned.
Now he wants to be mayor of New York City, and he’s polling second (with other contenders) to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, according to a Times story last week.
Nowhere in the magazine piece does Weiner state why he wants to be mayor, or what his priorities might be should he be elected (an unlikely event, I believe). Weiner talks endlessly in the article, to the point where writer Jonathan Van Meter says that “never has an interview felt so much like a therapy session.”
Apparently, Weiner is looking for redemption, that three-hanky staple favored by asinine daytime talk-show hosts who resort to the confessional when they’ve run out of people who hope to shed 200 pounds or need to find out who exactly the daddy is of that kid born a while back.
Weiner is not the only tarnished former public servant seeking office. There’s Mark Sanford, the two-term South Carolina governor who claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually doing the tango with his Argentinean girlfriend. Sanford, married at the time, declined to resign his governorship. Now he’d like to go to Congress, although even the GOP has ostracized him after his ex-wife sicced a restraining order on him for his habit of showing up uninvited at her house. His Democratic opponent is Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Stephen Colbert’s sister, so this particular election should provide some laughs.
Weiner and Sanford and their quests for redemption raise a question: is inflicting yourselves on the public yet again really the right thing to do?
Which brings us to John Profumo. If you’re of a certain age or have seen the 1989 movie “Scandal,” you may be familiar with Profumo and England’s great Cold War sex-scandal of the early 60s. If not, here’s a primer: Profumo (1915-2006) was an Oxford-educated son of a baron, fought in World War ll with distinction, rose through the political ranks and married actress Valerie Hobson (she played the adult Estella in David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of “Great Expectations”). In 1960, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appointed Profumo a Secretary of State for War. In the summer of 1961, Profumo met Christine Keeler, a young model and dancer. Their affair lasted only weeks, but Keeler also was sleeping with Yevgeni Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London. If you’ve read your le Carré, “senior naval attaché" means spy, although no state secrets were revealed in the Profumo Affair, as the press soon dubbed the sexy shenanigans.
Profumo—like Weiner, Sanford and so many other politicians through the decades—lied initially (in the House of Commons, no less), claiming he knew Keeler but denying any impropriety in the relationship. Eventually, Profumo was forced to admit his lie, and he resigned. The scandal may have contributed to the 1964 collapse of the Macmillan government.
But here’s where the story really gets interesting: Profumo never attempted a political comeback (probably impossible in that era, anyway). He didn’t write a book, didn’t go on radio or TV. He never spoke of the affair in public for the rest of his long life.
But he didn’t flee to his estate, either. Instead, he volunteered to clean toilets at Toynbee Hall, an East End charity. He worked there for the rest of his life. Eventually, he became Toynbee Hill’s chief fundraiser, and proved very good at his job. His wife also worked for charities until her death in 1998.
In 1975, he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth honored him at a Buckingham Palace ceremony. One contemporary said he “felt more admiration [for Profumo] than all the men I’ve known in my lifetime.”
I’m not suggesting that Weiner, Sanford and their ilk clean toilets—although it couldn’t hurt. But I think these men (and it’s always men) should have the common sense and the good taste to waltz out of the limelight. They lied to the people they claim they wish to serve. Maybe they could follow John Profumo’s sterling example, accomplish something that helps people, not something that feeds the ego and masquerades as the means to redemption.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “there are no second acts in American lives.”
*This is a Yiddish aphorism Portnoy mentions to Dr. Spielvogel: “When the penis stands, the brains get buried in the ground.”