Another Perspective

The Emperor’s Rub

What the Profumo and Spitzer scandals tell us about shame.

By 3.27.08

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As Eliot Spitzer's once promising political career fades into distant memory, the career of more than one misadventurer has gotten a leg up in the past few weeks.

This weekend, Brazilian madam Andreia Schwartz was offered a plea deal to spill details of her dalliances with the former governor. She chose to keep quiet and head out to Brazil -- but plans to tell all for the right price and is considering offers to appear in the Brazilian Playboy.

The opportunities available in the aftermath of Spitzer's political demise are notable for their similarity to another political scandal that took place 45 years ago in the UK. On March 21, 1963, Secretary of State for War John Profumo announced in Parliament that he had not been involved with a young woman who was well-known for her sexual liaisons.

Then, it was Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old call girl who was simultaneously sleeping with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Russian spy. When it came out that Profumo had in fact been involved with Keeler, he resigned and dedicated the remainder of his life to a charity in the East End of London.

Though it is unlikely that Spitzer will spend the rest of his life voluntarily atoning for his transgressions with the Emperor's Club, it is interesting to note the events that transpired in the wake of their scandals.

Profumo's sense of personal shame sent him to atone for over 40 years, and Stephen Ward -- accused of being Keeler's pimp and a spy -- committed suicide in reaction to the stress of the scandal and the charges against him. The scandal probably hastened the downfall of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's Conservative government.

But Keeler, an attractive young woman, went on to pose for an iconic Lewis Morley photograph and write two autobiographies. Two films have since been made about the affair.

THE EVENTS FOLLOWING Profumo's scandal have become almost a prototype of scandal aftermath today. As Spitzer's spiral down is memorialized, the outliers in the situation are profiting handsomely.

Spitzer's prostitute "Kristen," known as Ashley Alexandra Dupre, sold over 2 million copies of her mediocre single "What We Want" on MySpace after the scandal. She was also offered $1 million to tour with Girls Gone Wild (until they realized they already had archived footage of her topless and rescinded the offer -- oops). And now Schwartz, who is only tangentially related to the scandal, may be getting a book deal and a centerfold spread.

But more astonishing than the astronomical sums offered to young women willing to spill scintillating details of their relationships with the rich and famous is how the rules of politics have changed.

Profumo was criticized for lying in Parliament and compromising national security. He was shamed out of office for his sexual transgression and continued to punish himself for the rest of his days.

Today, New York's former governor, having made a name for himself shaming corporations and chasing down prostitution rings, has been dethroned. But in his place has sprung up a market for terrible music on MySpace and a free pass for his replacement.

The lieutenant governor of New York, Blind African American Democrat David Paterson, well-liked by party members and considered to be a "breath of fresh air" in the governor's office, was welcomed with open arms into the governor's office last week. And yet, his first order of business was to admit that both he and his wife had engaged in extramarital affairs. Next, we learned that he used cocaine and marijuana.

Paterson's confessions have barely affected his new role as governor. Though both men broke the law, Spitzer made the mistake of condemning his own actions before they were made public.

Voters may not feel comfortable imposing their morals on politicians, but they are more than comfortable punishing public figures for violating their own moral codes.

SPITZER SPENT HIS career shaming businesses into acting the way he wanted them to and punishing an activity publicly that he enjoyed privately. When he announced that he had been involved with the Emperor's Club, he quickly learned that while shame is a powerful tool for an upwardly mobile politician, it can be equally powerful on the way down.

The former New York governor has revived an act most thought gone and buried -- the Democratic sex scandal. His attempts to curb prostitution as governor only helped perpetuate it. Privately, he contributed his own money to the Emperor's Club's earnings, and now the notoriety he has given them will likely further their finances. Untold advocates for legalizing prostitution have surfaced.

Paterson, on the other hand, took a lesson from his colleagues -- most notably Bill Clinton -- and learned that it's easier to survive a scandal when you've previously lowered public expectation yourself.

With his pompous pledge to "change the ethics of Albany," Spitzer set the standards for his own conduct precariously high. The lesson for politicians today is clear -- don't knock it if you've tried it.

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