It was all "very mild and a very long time ago," Michael Portillo told British journalists as he announced he had engaged in homosexual acts in college. I am not who I was, the former defense minister and Conservative Party star assured the nation in so many words.
Confession and redemption have moved from the heart of religion to the heart of politics. Portillo's calculated admission last week of a sexual past that he had legitimately refused to discuss previously moves the politics of preemptive redemption across the Atlantic as well.
Portillo, at age 46, is a big fish in Britain. He would doubtless be Conservative Party leader today had he not been dragged down to defeat in his home district in Labor's 1997 tidal-wave national victory. He is the only Tory on the scene given any chance, in a distant future, to oust Tony Blair.
Portillo's admission provoked a journalistic whirlwind -- the Daily Telegraph had 11 stories in one edition -- but drew political shrugs from Conservative leaders, who said they still support Portillo's return to Parliament and to a senior party role as soon as possible. Commentators in London rushed to proclaim how open-minded, blase or Europeanized even Conservative-voting Britons have become over the private lives of their politicians.
Perhaps the reaction to Portillo's limited modified self-outing does represent a defeat for the fundamentalists who would use politics to enforce codes of sexual behavior. If so, that is to be welcomed.
But there is also something troubling in the way politicians feel forced to disown their personal history and experiences to maintain political viability in this media-driven age of inquiry and disclosure. Instead of candidly trying to apply what they may have learned from their own experiences to help ease the plight of others, they see it as necessary to repudiate what they have done and even who they were.
That seems to me to be the thread that connects the Portillo disclosures not so much to Bill Clinton's disgraceful effort to wriggle off the Lewinsky hook of his own making but to George W. Bush's studied vagueness on questions of youthful drug use. Portillo and Bush ask their socially conservative parties for a tolerance that they -- and their parties -- have been generally unwilling to provide to others.
Politicians also deserve second chances, when they have not done irreparable harm through their errors. But the political art of constant personal reinvention is too frequently a matter of tactics, not salvation. This pushes our leaders to grant themselves preemptive redemption for whatever may emerge in the future about their past.
Portillo emphasized that he has been married for 17 years in a union that British newspapers represent as a happy and successful one. He practiced the Tory version of "family values" in past campaigns. Moreover, when he was defense minister in John Major's cabinet, he opposed allowing homosexuals to serve in the military and he opposed lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16 from 18.
"The fact that I did not allow my youthful experiences to overrule my judgment as defense secretary is not to me hypocrisy," Portillo said, defending himself against the kind of double-standard accusations that have been leveled against Bush in his front-running campaign for the Republican nomination.
The Texas governor has owned up to a past of heavy carousing. He has responded to unsubstantiated suggestions of drug use by indirectly denying taking cocaine within the past 25 years. His admission of having been "young and irresponsible" carries his appeal for preemptive redemption.
But as governor, Bush "slashed prison drug-treatment programs, increased criminal penalties and placed hardships, such as losing welfare benefits or driver's licenses, upon those who abuse illegal drugs," Christy Hoppe of the Dallas Morning News wrote last month. Prisoners jailed for drug abuse went from 17,087 to 28,636 in Bush's first four-year term and today account for 25 percent of the prisoner population, up from one-in-six before Bush.
The lack of compassion for others that Portillo on his side of the Atlantic and Bush over here have shown in their studied mea culpas is troubling. They have locked the trunk that holds an unuseful past and thrown the key away. The message is that they were not permanently stained, or damaged, even if others were, and they will talk about their past experiences only to explain why they are not relevant to their candidacies today.
Today's ravenous and scolding media culture may make it impossible for working politicians to do otherwise. But this is a loss, for them as individuals and for us as a society.