When it comes to talking about sex, U.S. politicians tend to be as tight-mouthed as clams.
Sure, New York Gov. David Paterson 'fessed up to multiple affairs after his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, had to resign over links to a prostitution ring. And former President Bill Clinton actually uttered the word "sex" in denying he had it with a White House intern.
But apart from scandal, can you imagine any American politico today being as frank as Britain's Nick Clegg when asked about his prowess in bed?
"I don't think I am particularly brilliant or particularly bad," Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, told the magazine GQ. And pressed on the number of women he had slept with, 41-year-old Clegg replied: "How many are we talking? Ten, 20, 30? No more than 30 & it's a lot less than that."
If Britons were surprised by Clegg's candor, they were hardly stunned to read about the sexual exploits of yet another politician.
A previous Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, was nicknamed "Paddy Pants Down." Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, revealed Friday that he had five children by three different women — none of whom he ever married. And Livingstone faces a tough electoral challenge from Boris Johnson, a flamboyant member of Parliament whose own amorous flings include one with a famous magazine editor.
"We're not as prudish as some people would make us out to be," says Joe Churcher, a political correspondent for Britain's Press Association. "I think affairs are accepted, and they're always newsworthy, though they're probably expected more with politicians than the ordinary person."
Indeed, Britain's history of sex in politics is so rich that a colleague, Chris Moncrieff, is writing a book titled Wine, Women and Westminster. As a rule of thumb, political scandals involving the Conservative Party "are usually sexual, and with Labor, they're usually to do with money," Moncrieff says.
John Major, the last Conservative prime minister, was widely considered as boring and strait-laced as they come. Only after he left office did voters learn he once had an affair with Parliament member Edwina Currie.
"She was famous at the time, and he was only a junior minister, a nobody as far as the press was concerned," says Moncrieff, who has covered politics for nearly five decades. "How they kept that secret for so long is incredible — he must have been in an incredible state of nerves as prime minister that this woman would blow the gaff."
In fact, Currie later wrote a book and sold the serial rights to a British paper, a common practice that ensures a steady flow of kiss-and-tell stories for the tabloid press. Of sex in political circles, she said: "There is an inexhaustible supply. No one needs to pay for sex. It is stalking the corridors of power, hitching up its skirt, delighted to be asked, and wives who try to forget it are nuts."
By comparison, recent Labor prime ministers have never raised an eyebrow's worth of suspicion. The most suggestive thing ever said about Tony Blair was wife Cherie's comment that he could "go five times a night."
And while the current prime minister, Gordon Brown, is also happily married, he once courted a Romanian princess who finally broke up with him after he kept dragging along thick books on economics whenever they went on vacation.
"I never stopped loving him, but & it was politics, politics, politics, and I needed nurturing," Princess Margarita told the British media.
Despite their usual tolerance for sexual shenanigans, Britons were shocked and angered by one affair: the 1963 tryst between Secretary of State for War John Profumo and call girl Christine Keeler, also mistress to a Russian spy.
Profumo had to resign and " 'Christine' became a dirty word," Moncrieff says. "You won't find any women born in that era who are named Christine."
Moncrieff and other mainstream British journalists admit they were surprised at how revealing Clegg was in his interview with GQ. (He did suggest he had been faithful to his wife.) They attribute Clegg's candor in large part to the interviewing skills of Piers Morgan, former editor of the sensationalist tabloids Daily Mirror and News of the World.
"I think the Liberal Dems are very embarrassed by it," Moncrieff says of the interview. "The vast majority of British politicians are extremely cautious about the press and wouldn't touch us with a barge pole."
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]