In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Profumo affair, Mark Steyn has reposted his obituary of John Profumo from seven years ago. Steyn adopts the conventional view that Profumo's sexual escapades and subsequent disgrace represented the decadent, dissipated face of the old British ruling class, while his acceptance of responsibility and personal penance (he spent the last forty years of his life as a volunteer for a charity) represented its more laudable side, reflecting its devotion to integrity and honor.
But there is a more cynical view of the affair: that Profumo's fall, and subsequent refusal to even attempt to regain his former position, demonstrated first and foremost the British ruling class' utter enfeeblement, and foretold its complete surrender shortly thereafter to other contenders--organized labor, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia, the professional class, the entrepreneurial/financial class--for domination of British society. Sexual indulgence, after all, is hardly limited to aristocrats, and there has been no shortage of political sex scandals in the years since John Profumo's. But members of a robust, confident elite don't simply lie down and accept disgrace, then wander off to clean toilets for a poorhouse for the rest of their lives, as Profumo did. And indeed, numerous British public figures have survived greater or lesser embarrassments and lived on to contend in the corridors of power. Profumo, however, was astute enough to recognize that his and his peers' (in both senses of the word) time had past, and that any attempted comeback would be futile.
In America, where elites have long been more dynamic than in the Old World, we see a similar pattern: the strongest (the Kennedys, to take the most obvious example) are never tainted by personal scandal, however egregious their behavior; the strong (the Clintons) brazen it out, and emerge largely intact; the weak (Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner) fall from power and must endure at least a period of disgrace before being allowed to attempt a comeback; and the weakest (John Edwards, Larry Craig) succumb, never to recover.
I have long held the opinion that in the political world, a "scandal" is best described as a kind of political contest: an accusation is made against a politician by his or her political enemies, the consequences of which are determined primarily by the relative political power of the target and his or her enemies, largely irrespective of the actual severity or validity of the accusation. This is particularly true of sex scandals, where "severity" is a highly subjective judgment that can easily be swayed by political sympathies. John Profumo's indiscretion was fairly minor, even by the standards of his day. But as an old-school upper-class traditionalist in a rapidly changing Britain, he had the misfortune to be politically vulnerable, and in the Darwinian world of democratic politics, even the tiniest of cuts will draw the predators to a sufficiently weakened prey.