UNIT 07: SEX SCANDALS AND POLITICAL PRIVACY OBJECTIVES:
After completing this unit, you should be able to:
• distinguish between garden-variety sex scandals and political corruption
• identify the elements that can turn an episode of sexual indiscretion into a full-
fledged scandal, such as Profumo, Munsinger and Clinton-Lewinsky
• analyze the role of the press in sensationalizing sexual misbehaviour.
Whenever a politician is caught engaging in inappropriate behaviour, especially sexual
misconduct, the media cries “scandal!” The term “scandal” is badly over-used, employed
almost indiscriminately to describe conduct that may be stupid, risky or irresponsible. But
scandalous? Not usually – not if involves purely private or personal behaviour. It requires
other elements to qualify as a scandal.
Stealing millions of dollars from the public purse is a scandal. It is corrupt. So is
awarding fat government contracts to one’s friends or relations. But having an affair with
someone else’s spouse? Aside from those involved, who really cares?
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton had sex with a girl at the office. If that was all there
was to it, his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, assuming it became public knowledge,
would have faded from the supermarket tabloids after a few weeks. But other factors
turned it into a huge scandal that refused to go away. For one thing, Clinton lied under
oath, which raised major questions about his character. For another, the sex took place in
the Oval Office, which seemed to offend the propriety of many Americans. (Had it
happened in a motel or the back seat of a limo, they would not have been as offended.)
Finally, Clinton’s indiscretion played into the agenda of his conservative political
enemies, who were determined to drive him from office by any means possible.
However, it can be argued that most politicians’ sexual escapades do not qualify as
scandals – unless some other element comes into play. For example, if the sexual
misbehaviour somehow compromises the interests or security of the state, then it is a
scandal. Or if it involves lying to Parliament or to the public. Or if it involves the abuse
of political power.
Not all that long ago, the press and political insiders tended to turn a blind eye to the sex
lives of politicians. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, had an
affair, and an out-of-wedlock child, with Sally Hemings, a slave girl. People who knew
didn’t talk about it. The press of the day didn’t report it. This conspiracy of silence
continued for the better part of two centuries.
President Franklin Roosevelt had an affair with his wife’s secretary, but that was not reported (nor was the fact that Roosevelt, seriously ill, was confined to a wheelchair
during the Second World War).
Everyone in the White House press corps knew, or at least suspected, that John F.
Kennedy was an enthusiastic philanderer and risk-taker, but no one reported his extra-
marital activity even when it extended to affairs with movie mega-star Marilyn Monroe
and with Judith Campbell Exner, who was also the mistress of Sam Giancana, a Mafia
This cosy see-no-evil arrangement began to break down in the 1960s, as a direct result of
the scandal involving John Profumo, Britain’s secretary of war, who became involved
with a call girl, Christine Keeler, who, as it transpired, was also sharing her bed with a
Soviet naval attaché and KGB agent. In the end, Profumo was forced to resign after he
lied about the affair to Parliament. The sordid publicity of this sex-and-security scandal
contributed to the demise of the Conservative government of the day.
In the United States, a turning point came in June 1969 on a little vacation island just off
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. It was called Chappaquiddick and the central
character was Senator Edward Kennedy, whose olderbrothers, John and Robert, had
been assassinated earlier in the decade. While Kennedy, then 37, was driving back from a
late-night party on Chappaquiddick, his car went off the edge of a bridge and into the
water. A female passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, was drowned. She was a 29-year-old
secretary, blond, beautiful and single, who worked on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Kennedy's wife was home with their children and had not attended the party.
The accident was not reported until eight hours later. Kennedy was charged with leaving
the scene of the accident. Kennedy maintained that he was simply in shock, and that was
why he had not called the police.
"I attempted to open the door and window of the car but I have no recollection of how I
got out of the car.