Leaders’ roles not rocked by sex ‘n’ drugs
Over the past 20 years, the personal foibles of political leaders have been increasingly exposed to view. But can a good confession save the day?
Before she became famous for incompetence on 'Strictly Come Dancing', Ann Widdicombe was a serious politician.
And she was at her most serious at the Tory Conference in 2000, firmly declaring there'd be 'zero tolerance towards drug taking' under the Conservatives.
This was a shock to her colleagues in the shadow cabinet, eight of whom, in the following few days, admitted to experimenting with drugs in their past.
They believed it was better to be honest about things if it made them and their party appear more normal – and even more attractive to voters.
Kevin Rudd agrees. It was he who, in August 2007, as leader of the opposition in Australia, visited a strip club in New York. He claimed he'd had so much to drink he had no recollection of events, but there were rumours of 'inappropriate behaviour' and eviction by the management.
'It's an embarrassing thing to happen,' said Mr Rudd. 'But I've said from day one in public life – I'm as flawed and failed as the rest of them.' In December that year, he was elected Prime Minister.
Rudd did not choose to reveal his strip club visit. He was exposed by the press and had to make the best of a bad job as did Bill Clinton, while he was President of the United States.
In 1998, Clinton was accused of having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
After strong denials, evidence forced him to confess. 'I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.'
But sometimes leaders offer personal gossip freely. In 2008, leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg told Piers Morgan in GQ magazine that he'd slept with 'up to 30 women.'
This admission caused much comment - and laughter - and made other politicians cautious. In an interview last weekend, the new Labour leader Ed Miliband avoided the Clegg-over trap, by saying he 'would not boast about his sexual prowess.'
So where do we stand on our leader's recreational activities?
It did President Obama no harm to admit in his autobiography 'Dreams of my father' that he'd used marijuana and cocaine in high school and college.
George Bush, when president, preferred to keep rumours of past alcoholism general: 'When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid.'
But are there limits? Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian PM, faces persistent allegations of using under-age prostitutes. Divorced by his wife for womanising and for being 'a man who frequents minors', he is firmly admitting nothing.
- Do we want our politicians to be better than us – or the same as us?
- 'I don't mind what they've done – as long as they don't lie about it.'
- Play 'Confess or Deny?' In a group, come up with a series of embarrassments public figures might face. Write each on a piece of paper then fold. Mix them up then each member of the group takes one. You now have to decide whether to deny or confess. If you decide to admit it, carefully write your confession. It could even win you friends. If you choose to deny, a coin is tossed. 'Heads' the story goes away and you're OK. 'Tails' and you're exposed as a liar and finished in public life.
- Write a punchy newspaper column giving your views about what public figures should be allowed to get away with.
Some People Say...
“Only tell the truth when you're caught.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Should public figures always be public?
- Good question. 'Even presidents have private lives' said Bill Clinton. But then he'd got into trouble with confessions before. When asked about past drug taking, he said 'I smoked – but I didn't inhale.'
- What sort of an answer is that?
- Well, funnily enough, the 'weasel words' of his admission caused more upset than the actual drug-taking. Which is probably why Obama was happy to tell us how he'd survived tough times: 'Pot had helped, and booze. Maybe a little blow when you could afford it; not smack though.'
- Didn't David Cameron have some drug issues?
- He doesn't deny smoking cannabis at Eton, and so is the first prime minister to acknowledge it. 'I did lots of things before I entered politics that I shouldn't have done.' That's where he draws the line.