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GP 15 March 2006: Our Favorite Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels

Profumo Passes.  John Profumo, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for War 1960-1963 and Fifth Baron of the United Kingdom of Italy, died Thursday at age 91.  He had been brought low 40 years back by his dalliance with Christine Keeler: 

Profumo, in dinner-jacket, first met Christine Keeler, wearing nothing but a dripping towel, at the swimming pool of Cliveden, the country home of Lord Astor, in whose grounds Stephen Ward rented a cottage.  Keeler was Ward’s guest, Profumo was Astor’s up at the “big house.”  On the sultry evening of July 8, 1961, he had gone down to the pool with his host, and their wives, for a cooling after-dinner stroll. 

For a good read of his climb into the upper reaches of British politics and his quick tumble down the backside of the mountain, you will have to go to the British rags, which have a much better feel for salacious gossip.  Try the Times of London, which we have cited above, or the Guardian, which places this rosy scandal in the frame of the whole social revolution of the sixties.  Profumo’s affair and his lies to Parliament about it ultimately dragged down Harold MacMillan as well, who ostensibly resigned as Prime Minister due to illness.  The New York Times does not do this sort of thing well, its guilt-racked editors incapable of laying out the naked facts unless they can call in a consulting psychologist to opine what it all means.  In any event, London, which thrives on recollections of more glorious days, really has cornered the market on obituaries, if we are to believe Marilyn Johnson’s new book The Dead Beat

Since that time Profumo and his wife Valerie Dobson, a British actress who faithfully stood by him, had worked ceaselessly for the poor, a worthy Purgatory for this dapper and very well rounded fast track politician and World War II gallant.  Even more than America, British society, particularly its upper crust, does not forgive its fallen heroes, though an occasional eminence would still dare to shake his hand and salute his life of atonement.  He was hung out to dry. 

Many titillating British sexual scandals in high places have been aired since that time, without all the frenzy.  We ourselves are always a bit heartened when something heterosexual happens in Britain, since illicit appetites at Oxford and Cambridge have so often run in the other direction, sometimes with dire consequences for Western security, as in the Blunt Affair. 

Lust and Avarice.  There’s always plenty of lust and avarice to go around.  In politics we call it corruption.  When we are at our best, we can laugh at the perpetrators, and the very best of this bad lot laugh heartily at themselves.  We’re having a bellyful of laughs right now in and around the Beltway.  In the stealing game, the Republicans make the Democrats look like pikers.  The GOP simply knocks down bigger purses and then makes such loud protestations of virtue.  Not that the Dems aren’t trying; they just are not as talented. 

Whether we are talking about Jack Abramoff, who has tainted politicians everywhere,  especially the Republicans, or bemoaning profligate spending on Iraq and other misadventures that are paired with tax cuts and a wealth transfer to the top 10% of our population, we’re looking at pretty remarkable scams.  It’s billion and trillion dollar stuff.  The standard of living of future Americans in every income bracket has been put at peril as a consequence.  What’s the expression: we have spent like there’s no tomorrow.  Alas, the Dems, rather too soiled themselves, are not pursuing the corruption theme too loudly.  They have such numerous skeletons in their own closets.  All the sleaze is conspiring to make Libertarians out of all of us. 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  In the 1988 movie, Steve Martin and Michael Caine vie to see who can bed a lady, but she turns the tables, gives her favors to no one, but makes off with their loot.  Now the movie has made it to Broadway as a musical comedy.  We hear that it’s pretty good fun, although the music falls down.  What we surmise from this is that con men have now achieved such legitimacy that they have moved from Hollywood into the real theater.  And further, that America knows full well it’s having a little tryst with corruption, so it’s trying to make the best of it. 

Paul Wolfowitz’s Puritanicy.  Again and again in American politics and American society, corruption begets its opposite, an outpouring of conspicuous virtue.  Both are about as bad, making our political dialogue toxic, and distracting us from the real work that has to get done. This has set the stage for plainclothes monks. The zealous Paul Wolfowitz, a true child of academia, has been let loose in the highest precincts of government, with devastating consequences.  He grew up at Cornell, where his father was a leading statistics professor, and went on to the University of Chicago, where he burnished his conservative bona fides.  A fair number would argue that he is the father of the Iraqi excursion, which most now think does not have a devil of a lot to do with stamping our terrorism.  He believes he can extend the peaceful fruits of democracy with surgical thrusts by the military.  Lately he is on a tear at the World Bank, where his mission in life is to put an end to corruption, particularly in Third World nations that receive First World largesse.  In Bangladesh, Chad, and Kenya, he is trying to put the blocks to politicos who convert development gifts into personal bank accounts. 

Wolfowitz, in short, is a crusader who thinks he can use a lash to whip the world into shape.  The important goals get lost as he pursues his nearsighted ideological agenda through unrealistic means.  We asked an old government hand who has watched all the comings and goings in and out of Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon how he sizes up Wolfowitz: 

How interesting.  I knew Paul back in the days, when he was a young
intellectual refugee from academia.  He obviously did well for himself after that.
I think Paul epitomizes the difficulty academics have in serving in government: he brings an intellectual construct which he thinks corresponds to reality.  When the construct clashes with reality, he sacrifices reality to the construct.  A sad case.
I advocate term limits for academics serving in government.  After a set period, they should have to return to wherever they came from. 

Wolfowitz has been allowed to freelance in the younger Bush’s corridors, because this administration, like its immediate predecessor, lacks a foreign policy and mistakes improvisation and ideology for strategy.  Not since Bush Senior, and particularly Reagan, have we had a compass in international affairs. 

The last time we so mistook moralizing for policy was in the days of Woodrow Wilson.  The Presbyterian from Princeton thought he would bring democracy and peace to the world.  Instead, he got caught up in endless armed incursions in Central America and finally stumbled into World War I and an absolutely horrendous peace settlement.  When Britain’s Lloyd George was asked by a reporter how he had done at Versailles, he said, “Not badly, considering I was seated between Jesus Christ (Wilson) and Napoleon (Clemencau).”  Oddly enough, Big Stick Bellicose Teddy Roosevelt chewed off less war than Wilson and even won himself a Nobel Peace Prize. 

Who’s Worse?   We can argue 'til hell freezes over about who’s worse—The Sinners or the Puritans.  But if the Sinners will give us a smile, we’ll go with them every time.  Who were some of the Immortals of Corruption?  Here’s a sampling: 

A Songwriter.  We remember one hardworking servant in New York City who had no use for a now forgotten, dismal hack politician mayor called Vincent Impellitteri, an immigrant from Connecticut and Italy.  “Oh, said the official, what a thieving creep!   I can remember Jimmy Walker.  Now there was a mayor with style.  You knew he was stealing from you, but he made you smile.  Impellitteri simply robbed you.” 

James J. Walker, known as Jimmy to most, and sometimes as Beau James, was the fun- lovingest-your-honor Gotham has ever had.  Prior to politics, he was a songwriter who came up with such goodies as “Will You Love Me in December (As You Do in May)?”   He said (of course, he must have had Wolfowitz in mind), “A reformer is a guy who rides through the sewer in a glass bottom boat.” 

Eventually upright men got to him, but he went away in style:

A group of women threw roses at Walker’s feet as he walked out of the courthouse after giving his testimony.  But roses could not ward off the forces that threatened him.  On August 11, 1932, in the Executive Chamber of the Hall of Governors in the State Capitol at Albany, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor of New York and nominee of the Democratic Party for President, began hearings to determine whether the mayor of New York City should be removed from office.  On September 1, 1932, Walker resigned. Not long afterward he sailed to join his mistress in Europe. 

The Grand Sachem of Tammany.  In 1949 Carmine DeSapio became both the youngest and last ruler of New York City’s political machine Tammany Hall.  He was connected to corruption aplenty and was thought to have ties to the mob.  But he got the aforementioned, reviled Impellitteri out of office, replacing him with Robert Wagner, son of New York’s most distinguished Democratic Senator.  In 1954 he also put W. Averell Harriman in the Governor’s Mansion.  They were worthy Democrats, and DeSapio could be proud of their ascent and of other deeds, even though Wagner later turned coat on him. Eleanor Roosevelt never forgave him for putting Harriman forward, since she was pushing her inept son FDR Jr.—she haunted DeSapio’s footsteps thereafter.  There are wonderful stories of his misdeeds: roads that got paved 3 times in six months down in Greenwich Village from whence he hailed.  Or the $11,000 that he left on the back seat of a taxicab in 1957. 

He did a little jail time but remained a popular figure.  Mayor Ed Koch, a reform Democrat who pitted himself against DeSapio’s machine, nonetheless said: “He is a crook, but I like him....  Most politicians still like De Sapio.  He always gets the most applause when he is introduced at Democratic dinners.” 

In fact, thoughtful academics will tell you that urban political machines often did a lot of good for America’s underclasses, getting them jobs or other favors when they had nowhere else to turn.  Their graft was legend, but they made many cities work. 

The Crap Shooter.  New York City does not have all the famed charlatans, though outlanders would like to think so.  One-time Louisiana Governor Edwin Washington Edwards got a 10 year sentence for racketeering in 2001.  But not before living life to the fullest, and creating everyday news in the New Orleans papers.  He served as governor 4 times, more than any other Louisiana governor, including the Kingfish.  He loved to fly off to Las Vegas on hell-bent-for-leather gambling expeditions.  Of course, that was before he brought gambling to Louisiana: shenanigans surrounding those riverboat gambling establishments eventually put him in the hoosegow. 

He had a real turn of phrase.  Running against David Treen in 1983, he quipped, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”   When a young lady stringer for The New York Times plagued him with questions about hospital contracts, he queried, “Honey, what parish are you from?”  After her quizzical reply, he said, “Don’t you need a hospital down there?” 

Presumably he will get out in 2011.  Or he will win one of his frequent appeals.  So he may be back to entertain us again and supplant the dreary band topping Louisiana today. 

P.S.  Our resurrection of all these scoundrels reminds us that obituaries have the power, when well wrought, to evoke memories that never should be forgotten.  Marilyn Johnson waxes on the art of the obituarian in The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of ObituariesThe New York Times twice reviewed this book, the first in its daily by its most talented book critic, Michiko Kakutani, and then in the Sunday Book Review by the less gifted Sternes, a husband and wife middlebrow team of food writers.  As we said in “In Praise of Two Gods Passing,” the obituary has become a nicely pervasive art form, though it is somewhat worrying that the writing quality in these death knells now seems to surpass that of all other journalism.  Elegy journalism.  In our “Irishmen Who Married Up,” we note that the obit crowd gathers yearly in Las Vegas, New Mexico, an over-the-hill town that the gentrifiers are trying to revive.  When we prowled around, we thought this burgh would probably make a good CIA hangout. 

P.P.S.  If you are trying to shake up your Sunday mornings, we recommend a look at our sister website, the blog SpiceLines, at www.spicelines.com.  There you will find Eggs 3 Ways—Indian, Mexican, and Provencal, each of which is guaranteed to carry you far away from your breakfast nook. 

P.P.P.S.  One member of  the Ross Thomas fan club claims that Mr. Thomas would be chortling at all the goings-on if he were alive today.  The very prolific California novelist apparently got to the essence of corruption, amply foreshadowing our current national predicament.  Another one of those one-of-a-kind talents tucked away in Malibu, he perished of lung cancer, long before he could see the small-town corruption he pictured corrode the national character.  A read of Roger Simon serves as a good introduction to this man of many parts.  For a more sentimental, considered appreciation of Thomas,  see Tony Hiss’s “Remembering Ross Thomas,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1996.  An early classic worth a read is The Fools in Town Are on Our Side.  More timely, perhaps, is The Cold War Swap in which an American intelligence agency slides into criminal behavior.

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