The Teflon Don
Sex scandals have a long history of taking down politicians — but don't get your hopes up about the current U.S. president.
But Trump is still theoretically exposed to the other reason that extramarital affairs can be particularly damaging for politicians — that their exposure can make them look ridiculous. When, in the early hours of Oct. 7, 1974, the police pulled over a vehicle that had been driving erratically near the waterfront in Washington, D.C., they discovered its thoroughly inebriated occupants to be Arkansas Rep. Wilbur Mills — the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — and a stripper named Fanne Foxe, known professionally as the “Argentine Firecracker.” Foxe attempted to flee the scene by jumping into the tidal basin. The subsequent ridicule brought an end to Mills’s career but did no harm to Foxe’s, who, after the incident, changed her working name to the “Tidal Basin Bombshell.”
Even more bizarre was the calamity that befell the British politician Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party in the 1960s. Thorpe had attempted to conceal the fact that he was gay by marrying Marion Stein, a concert pianist. Behind the scenes, however, he had been carrying on an affair with a would-be male model, Norman Scott. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, but though the police and secret services knew about Thorpe’s sexual activities, they kept quiet about them. Thorpe was also able to persuade the press to hush up the affair for a good 10 years. Scott, however, became increasingly resentful of what he saw as Thorpe’s failure to help him out when his fortunes declined and began telling people about the relationship after it was over. Attempts to buy him off failed, and Thorpe, acting through intermediaries, hired a former pilot named Andrew Newton to get rid of him, or so the story went. On a lonely stretch of moor in the west of England, Newton pulled out a gun and shot Scott’s dog Rinka, a Great Dane, before turning the gun on Scott. It jammed, however, and Scott escaped. The affair became public, and Thorpe was forced to resign, though he was acquitted on all charges in a subsequent, much-publicized trial for attempted murder.
Relationships with prostitutes seem in the U.K., as well as the United States, to have been more dangerous for politicians’ reputations than regular, long-term affairs, as Lord Antony Lambton, a minister in Edward Heath’s Conservative government, discovered in 1973, when the husband of the prostitute he was seeing took clandestine photographs of them in bed to the tabloid press. The affair suggested another reason why stories about politicians’ impropriety have become more common in recent decades: As the popular press has gotten into financial difficulties, beset with rising costs and falling circulation, it has grasped for ever more sensational stories with which to win back readers, and politicians’ private lives have become fair game in the struggle to survive.
Of course, the moralizing commentaries with which papers like the News of the World accompanied their stories of politicians’ sex affairs were themselves nauseatingly hypocritical, as was the salacious delight with which their readers consumed them. As the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay said long ago, “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” Macaulay’s dictum applied particularly to the Profumo affair of 1963, in which British War Secretary John Profumo had had an affair with the model and showgirl Christine Keeler, who had also been seeing a Russian agent. Even before Keeler had gone public, the secret services had become aware of the affair, and in the wake of several other revelations about Soviet spies and agents, they took the matter seriously. The affair got into the public domain, and Profumo was forced to resign when he admitted having lied to the House of Commons when he was first obliged to deal with the story.
Profumo, overcome by shame at the exposure of his misconduct, spent the rest of his life atoning for his sins with charitable work in the poverty-stricken East End of London. Shame, however, seems to be an emotion entirely absent from Donald Trump’s repertoire of feelings. This is the second explanation for Trump’s resilience against sexual allegations. He has long lived in the world of tabloid sensationalism, a world that gave him a kind of fame few businessmen have achieved and even fewer have aspired to. In the end, he may feel that even the most embarrassing revelations are all justified in the name of entertainment.