School for scandal

Posted: Dec 14, 2004 12:00 AM

 California Democratic operative and ardent Anglophile Bob Mulholland calls this conundrum the British Rule: "Why do men go into politics, when they either end up in obscurity or a scandal?

 Or is it the American rule?

 Consider: As Bernie Kerik bowed out in his bid to be the Bush administration's next homeland secretary because of a nanny problem -- yeah, I know, Kerik had more than just a nanny problem -- British Home Secretary David Blunkett survived weeks of his own nannygate, a choice element in an even messier personal scandal. As the United Kingdom's Independent reported, the divorced Blunkett began an affair with American publisher Kimberly Quinn four months into her marriage. During the three years they were an item, Quinn gave birth to a now 2-year-old son, and she is pregnant with another child. Blunkett is fighting in court to establish his paternity.

 Meanwhile, Quinn appears to be behind leaked reports that Blunkett's office fast-tracked the visa process for her son's nanny, gave Quinn two taxpayer-funded first-class train tickets reserved for the spouses of members of Parliament, and had government personnel acting as go-betweens as Blunkett tried to prolong an affair she wanted to end.

 Here's another twist: Blunkett has had to rely on aides more than the average politician because he is blind.

 When I first arrived in the United Kingdom two weeks ago, the scandal seemed so unfair. Big deal -- Blunkett helped the nanny get her visa quickly. It seemed no biggie, since the nanny wasn't in the country illegally and should have been approved in due course. The train tickets posed a problem, if mitigated by the fact that Blunkett admitted that he made a mistake and repaid the tab. Bully for Prime Minister Tony Blair for backing Blunkett because, he said, "I have actually always said that politicians are entitled to their private lives."

 To his credit, I thought, Blunkett wanted to establish paternity so he could provide for his children. As The Economist quipped, Blunkett "may well have achieved a first in being a senior politician determined to prove that he is the father of his mistress' child."

 Many reporters clearly didn't like writing about Blunkett's personal life. A Daily Telegraph writer noted how journalists saw Blunkett and Quinn attend events as a couple, but didn't report on the affair until the nanny visa and rail tickets linked the public and private.

 It set a bad precedent when Blunkett gave first-class train passes to his well-heeled mistress. Leaks that seemed to come from Quinn's friends suggested that Blunkett claimed paternity not so much to ensure access to the children but to hurt Quinn. Other stories reported that Blunkett drafted aides into the drama to negotiate with Quinn.

 "Given that Blunkett's blind, besides his guide dog, he uses a lot of employees to do a lot of things," a sympathetic Mulholland noted. Certainly Blunkett's disability -- and his overcoming it -- makes him a more sympathetic figure. I saw him in Parliament with his dog Sophie and watched as fellow politicians went out of their way to show their support. Who wants to see a man who could conquer a serious disability be undone by a lonely heart?

 Some political figures -- Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton -- invite glee when their peccadilloes spill out. Blunkett's story, on the other hand, is the stuff of unending discomfort.

 On the one hand, no one wants to judge an accomplished man based on stupid things he did out of a desperate longing for love. And it's wrong to judge a man by one mistake.

 But I'm not sure that the public should ignore the immorality of this episode. There is an ugly narcissism to the relationship, including Blunkett's fight to establish paternity.

 Instead, many critics heaped scorn on cuckolded husband Stephen Quinn, who recently learned that the boy whose "nappies" he had been changing for two years may not be his biological son. For the rest of Quinn's life, snickers will trail him as he walks down the hall. There is no knowing how the lives of Quinn's children may change.

 In a country obsessed with legislating kindness -- with rules to protect burglars from overzealous homeowners and inhibit "hate speech" -- voters ought to prefer politicians who recognize the human fallout of their actions.

 Which makes me now wonder if there is too much sympathy for Blunkett. I don't want his scalp but wonder if it's healthy to hand him a halo.

 Oddly, a new rash of stories could undermine predictions that Blunkett will survive as home secretary -- thanks to man's most dangerous organ, his big mouth. Blunkett made the mistake of dissing fellow Labor members of Parliament to his biographer and had to apologize when the remarks were aired. The criticism, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told the BBC, revealed "an element of personal arrogance." Too true. It's the stuff of tragedy, personal and public.