MEDIA WATCH

Private sex and public exposure

George Bain May 25 1987
MEDIA WATCH

Private sex and public exposure

George Bain May 25 1987

Private sex and public exposure

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

As a young MP, David Lloyd George was embroiled in a divorce action, not as co-respondent—someone else had that role—but as the alleged father of the defendant wife’s child. Worse, as Richard Lloyd George told it in a 1960 biography of his father, the circumstances were, well, unseemly: “On the night in question . . . [the] husband, who was a doctor, had been called away from home on a case, and it was alleged that my father, a guest staying under his roof, took advantage of his absence to make love to his wife.” Lloyd George escaped unscathed, as he did from various other adventures—including one in Buenos Aires, in which an irate husband seems to have considered firearms as a means of redress. The future prime minister of Britain did so in the paternity matter by establishing from the House of Commons attendance record that he had been dutifully in his place on that night. (The doctor and his wife lived in Montgomeryshire, Wales.) Still, Richard Lloyd George put up no strong argument for his parent’s innocence except that conception could not have occurred—the lady admitted there had been other occasions—on the date given.

As Gary Hart might note ruefully, we are talking here about the Victorian era, which remains a byword for propriety in public and private life. Earlier, on the threshold of that long and supposedly decorous age, Lord Melbourne, another who was destined for high office, was twice brought to court by aggrieved husbands—by a Rev. Lord Branden for the alleged seduction of his wife, Elizabeth, and by a former Tory MP named Norton for the seduction of his wife, Caroline. .Certainly the second of these affairs, described by biographer Philip Ziegler as a ménage à trois, was known to the upper crust—which, in a time of narrow suffrage, meant all who counted. They rather didn’t like it, not on moral grounds but because of the failure of the parties to keep up appearances. Melbourne survived the tut-tutting to become prime minister—and an adored avuncular figure to a young and impressionable Queen.

Or consider Lord Palmerston. Neither his liaisons nor his having turned up unbidden in the middle of the night in the bedroom of a lady-in-waiting denied him a distinguished career as foreign secretary and prime minister, although,

according to biographer Jasper Ridley, the Queen considered an attempt on the virtue of one of her ladies in her own Windsor Castle a personal affront. Palmerston’s longest-standing affair was with Emily, Lady Cowper, some of whose children, the biographer noted nonchalantly, may have been Palmerston’s. Eventually they married. He was also linked with Sarah, Lady Jersey, whose amorous propensities may be gauged by her husband’s explanation for refusing to duel in defence of her honor—namely, that once started down that road, he would have to fight every gentleman in town.

So much for episodes in the career of Eros in Victorian politics; what about this side of the Atlantic? Pierre Berton in The Promised Land reproduced an antic account, which would have been actionable if untrue, from Bob Edwards’s Calgary Eye-Opener of a hus-

The picture of the media in trench coats playing detective on the excuse of the public's right to know all is unappetizing

band, unexpectedly returned home at 2 a.m., having found Sir Clifford Sifton, the grand panjandrum of the West in the Laurier government, departing by a back door. (The great man said he had been called in to give the wife legal advice.)

Then there was the long-standing relationship between Laurier himself and Emilie Lavergne, the wife of his law partner, over which historians have equivocated. Joseph Schuil in his 1965 biography said that “she was not a mistress in the generally accepted sense” but did not neglect to mention that “she had borne a son, Armand, who was now the little serpent in . . . Eden.” What made him so was the boy’s resemblance to Laurier, which was commented on by many people at the time. Prom photos, Sandra Gwyn in The Private Capital (1984) found it “striking to a degree. . . .”

Gary Hart’s tryst has revived mention of at least two U.S. presidents having had illegitimate children. In 1884 Grover Cleveland was taunted by opponents with chants of “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” to which his unabashed supporters replied, “He’s go-

ing to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” In 1921 Warren Gamaliel Harding took office, supporting a daughter scarcely a year old, which the mother, Nan Britton, thought had been conceived in the Senate office building. (She later wrote a book, The President's Daughter, which also revealed that she and the then-senator once had been broken in upon by detectives in a Broadway hotel, whereupon the future president, with wonderful chutzpah, reassured her that they could not be arrested because it was illegal to detain a U.S. senator en route to Washington to serve the people.)

The question that arises—and this is where the Gary Hart affair comes inis what do such stories as these, and others about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and others, tell us about their capability for office? Lloyd George has been described as one of two authentic geniuses of 20thcentury British politics, the other being Churchill; Roosevelt was elected four times and generally is ranked among the great presidents; Sir Wilfrid Laurier remains a major figure in Canadian history. They were what they were neither hecause of nor in spite of anything done in bed. Warren Harding was not arguably the worst U.S. president because, as Nan claimed for him, he fornicated in a White House coat closet, but because he surrounded himself with grafters and because he was, as H.L. Mencken called him, “Gamaliel the Stonehead” and the most “complete and dreadful nitwit” in the pages of U.S. history.

We do not inquire into the sex life of surgeons who operate on us, bankers who keep our money or editors on whom we rely for our information needs. Surely some relevance to something must be established to say we should in the case of politicians.

The police do not routinely stake out homes on the basis of anonymous information from persons whose motives may be financial gain, personal notoriety or political vengeance; they need reasonable and probable cause to believe something of a criminal nature may be occurring. Sex outside marriage is not that; it does not lead to the criminal courts, although it may to the divorce courts, where it is a private matter between two persons. The picture of the media, in trench coats in the shadows, playing divorce detective on the hypocritical excuse of the public’s right to know all, is unappetizing.