The late John Profumo is a political figure with little name recognition these days. But in 1963 Profumo was at the center of a sex scandal that rocked the British government and made headlines around the world. Fifty-five years later, that scandal is worth recalling for the light it sheds on the tolerance President Trump can count on with respect to his private life.
The Profumo scandal was not just about sex, lies, and racy pictures. It was about sex, lies, and foreign agents. As such, it had a dimension missing from the now 20-year-old Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair but present in the investigations surrounding President Trump.
The Profumo scandal has been the focus of a Philip Larkin poem, a film featuring Ian McKellen as Profumo, and most recently the Netflix series The Crown. But the Profumo scandal requires no embellishment. The account of it published in Lord Denning’s Report to Parliament in 1963 carries with it more than enough twists and turns.
Profumo was the secretary of state for war in the cabinet of Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when his affair with Christine Keeler became a major story that years later would prompt the English paper the Evening Standard to observe, “Profumo’s fall marked the loss of innocence, the death of respect for the establishment, and the explosion of sex into the very center of public life.”
A graduate of Harrow and Oxford, Profumo, at the age of 48, brought with him a distinguished background when he gained notoriety. He had fought in World War II, rising to the rank of brigadier in the British army, and at one point he was the youngest member of Parliament.
Prior to becoming secretary of war, Profumo served as under-secretary and minister of state in the Foreign Office. In 1954 he married stage and movie actress Valerie Hobson, most famous for her role as Estella in David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Profumo met Christine Keeler, then a 19-year-old model and nightclub dancer, at a 1961 swimming party at Cliveden, the estate of Lord Aster, where Keeler caught Profumo’s eye. They soon began an affair.
Their relationship might have remained secret, but at the time Keeler was also sleeping with Captain Yevgeni Ivanov, an assistant Naval attaché and intelligence officer at the Soviet Embassy in London. Profumo’s liaison with Keeler was complicated still further because of Dr. Steven Ward, who had brought Keeler to the swimming party. A London physician with Soviet sympathies and a friend of Ivanov, Ward was known for making young women he knew available to his prominent friends.
Like Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who says she had an affair with Donald Trump before he became president, Keeler had a penchant for publicity, getting photos of herself clothed and unclothed in the papers. She came to widespread public attention in March 1963 when she failed to appear at the trial of a former lover who in a jealous rage had fired bullets into her apartment.
Profumo was thought to have helped Keeler to disappear before the trial because he feared the rumors of her affair with him might gain credibility if she testified. Profumo had reason to fear the rumors. His conduct was questioned openly in Parliament a week after Keeler’s disappearance, and only after Profumo testified on the floor of the House of Commons that there was nothing to the rumors did the spotlight on him briefly die.
The rumors would not go away, however, and they got more serious when George Wigg, the Labor Party backbencher who had brought up Profumo’s situation on the floor of Parliament, went on television to say that national security (Profumo’s connection to Yevgeni Ivanov) was the real reason the Profumo case was so serious.
Behind the scenes even more was going on. Stephen Ward was now under investigation for profiting from prostitution, and in an effort to avoid prosecution, Ward, who would commit suicide during his trial, met with the private secretary of Harold Macmillan to warn that he would reveal the extent of Profumo’s involvement with Keeler if the government did not take steps to stop the police inquiries about him.
Ward’s accusation, coupled with new information from the Security Service about Christine Keeler, was enough to prompt Prime Minister Macmillan to ask the lord chancellor to personally undertake an inquiry into the Profumo case. It was, Profumo realized, the end of the line for him. On June 4, he sent Macmillan a note admitting that he had not told the truth about his relationship with Christine Keeler.
With “deep remorse” he was, Profumo announced, resigning from government. His lying and the idea that he might have imperiled British security (there was no evidence that he revealed any military secrets) by sleeping with a woman who was intimate with a Soviet intelligence officer had proved damning in a way that having a sordid sexual affair did not. Had he just been guilty of philandering, Profumo might have remained in office.
The lessons for Donald Trump from the Profumo affair seem clear: He can, in all likelihood, continue to keep his sexual accusers at bay so long as he never has to testify in court, but if the president is shown to be lying about the extent of his ties to Russia, then everything changes. The talk of impeaching him will no longer appear as partisan as it does now or an issue Republicans can use to rally their base.
The problem for the president is that the publication of former F.B.I. director James Comey’s new book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth Lies, and Leadership, has revived a series of embarrassing questions. Stories about the president’s sex life and his Russian ties have been made to seem credible by Comey. He insists that he cannot say for sure that there is no truth to the much-talked-about dossier compiled on Trump by British ex-spy Christopher Steele that alleges during a 2013 stay in Moscow the Russians taped Trump paying prostitutes to urinate on the hotel bed President and Mrs. Obama had once slept in. The story has never been substantiated, but, given the president’s past sexual conduct and softness on Russia, the story won’t do what the president needs it to do—die quickly. The president is, at least for the immediate future, trapped in Profumo country.