The controversy over President François Hollande’s relationship with French actress Julie Gayet is just the latest episode in a long history of sexual philandering involving powerful politicians, a history that stretches all the way back to Antony and Cleopatra.
During his long press conference in Paris last week, the French president had a lot to say, except on one subject — his alleged affair with Ms Gayet. “I have one principle: Private affairs are dealt with in private and with respect for the privacy of others.”
It was noteworthy, though, that Hollande, 59, didn’t deny the claim first made in the celebrity magazine Closer that he had secret trysts with Gayet, 41, in a flat a stone’s throw from the Elysée Palace.
He did tell journalists that he would not drag Closer through the courts for breaching his privacy. Julie Gayer, on the other hand, is said to have consulted lawyers with a view to initiating legal proceedings against the magazine.
However much the French president may plead his entitlement to a private life, the reality is that the public’s fascination with the private lives of public figures isn’t going to change. And we are increasingly coming to recognise that in a democracy the “public interest” is to some extent whatever interests the public.
Sexual escapades and exposés, and especially the sex lives of those in high places, always fascinate the public. This is why the 300,000 copies of Closer sold out so quickly. Power has its own sexual magnetism, a fact readily recognised by political leaders as different as David Lloyd George, Charles Haughey, and Bill Clinton.
In Henry Kissinger’s 1982 book Years of Upheaval, there is a photograph of Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev glancing lasciviously at actress Jill St John at a 1973 reception given by then US president Richard Nixon. The actress was Kissinger’s date, and the fact that he could get such a date, given that he was no Tom Cruise, lends credence to his claim that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”.
Nixon’s predecessor, John F Kennedy, would undoubtedly agree. Among his many conquests during his time in the White House were the actresses Angie Dickinson and Marilyn Monroe. JFK wasn’t called the “priapic president” for nothing. However, in initiating an affair with Judith Exner, he behaved quite recklessly because at the time she was also the girlfriend of notorious Mafia mobster Sam Giancana, thereby leaving Kennedy open to blackmail.
Similar considerations formed part of the background to the panic caused in high government circles in London by the Profumo affair during the height of the Cold War in 1963. It was the sight of 21-year-old Christine Keeler swimming naked in a pool in a posh country house (owned by Lord Astor, proprietor of The Observer) that started John Profumo on the road to political ruin.
Profumo, who was married to the actress Valerie Hobson, was secretary of state for war in the Harold Macmillan cabinet, and this of course at a time when the Cold War was at its frostiest and the threat of nuclear conflagration, after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, appeared very real.
Profumo embarked on an affair, but what he didn’t know at the time was that Ms Keeler — described by the Sunday Telegraph as “a sultry brunette with wistful eyes and stunning legs” — was also sleeping with Yevgeny Ivanov, the naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London, a convenient cover for a KGB agent.
At the time, the Soviets were desperate for any information about American intentions in Europe, where the divided city of Berlin had become a hotspot for the two superpowers.
When news of the Profumo affair broke in June 1963, there were immediate security worries. Was Ms Keeler reporting all details of the pillow talk between herself and Profumo to Ivanov?
When news of the affair made international headlines, over in Washington DC, the president, John F Kennedy, asked for all the English papers to be delivered to the Oval Office so that he could follow the scandal that would rock the Conservative government led by Macmillan.
In his 1992 autobiography, entitled The Naked Spy, Ivanov says he was instructed by KGB headquarters at Moscow Centre to write down all the details of Profumo’s liaison with Christine Keeler as “part of my ongoing plot to provide myself with enough material to mount what would undoubtedly have been a formidable blackmail assault on the secretary of state for war”.
EVEN in Ireland, “affairs of state” can have a multiplicity of meanings. In 1999, journalist and socialite Terry Keane (who died in May 2008) finally revealed that she had had a 27-year affair with former taoiseach Charles Haughey.
She began a relationship with Haughey in 1972 and often spoke of their affair at social gatherings. She frequently referred to him as “Sweetie” in the Keane Edge column in the Sunday Independent, but it wasn’t until her dramatic revelation to Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show on May 14, 1999, that the relationship became public knowledge.
She went back on The Late Late Show in 2006 (this time with Pat Kenny) to say that she deeply regretted her TV revelation of the affair and the hurt it had caused to others.
In an article entitled “Champagne Charlie”, my former Irish Press colleague Mary Kenny wrote in The Spectator in 1982 of Haughey’s “special appeal to women”, and added that Charlie’s reputation as a womaniser had done him no harm at all.
“Womanisers in Ireland are characterised as ‘a bit of a lad for the women’ or ‘a right boyo’. Nobody in Dáil Éireann has ever fallen from grace for this reason; Parnell’s troubles were caused not by his love for Kitty O’Shea, but by his hounding by the British gutter press.”
Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the US, was certainly “a right boyo”.
Long before his affair with Monica Lewinsky in the White House that led to his impeachment, he had been sexually involved with a number of other women, most notably Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers. But the most politically damaging of all was his liaison with Ms Lewinsky, a 22-year-old intern.
News media broke the story of Clinton’s sexual impropriety with Ms Lewinsky on Jan 21, 1998. Kenneth Starr, a congressionally appointed independent prosecutor, released his report on Sep 9, 1998, a report some critics decried as “pornographic”. It became an instant bestseller.
After being impeached on foot of the Starr Report, Clinton’s presidency was saved by the US Senate which voted against conviction. On Feb 12, 1999, the Senate voted 55-45 against impeaching Clinton for perjury, and 50-50 against impeachment for obstructing justice.
In her 1999 book Monica’s Story (as told to Andrew Morton), Ms Lewinsky said: “It’s very hard when you are watching your life being destroyed on prime time television. Justice in this country is a joke. Our tabloid TV has now spawned tabloid government.”
It is now her fate to be forever linked with a sex scandal that almost toppled an American president.