Notes on a scandal: the American view

Has Kimberly Quinn's love life made headlines in her native America? Tim Luckhurst reports
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The Independent Online

When the teenage Kimberly Solomon escaped the gilded cage of her parents' home in San Marino, California, for Vassar College in upstate New York she liked to boast that Vassar had "educated more Presidential first ladies than any other college." Back then the future Kimberly Quinn (via Fortier) was very keen to be noticed.

Following her recent travails she may be pleased to note that she has not been, at least not in San Marino. In her childhood home Mitch Lehman, editor of the tiny San Marino Tribune expresses astonishment that a local girl has made such an impact on British life. "Wow. That's amazing. It sounds like Monica Lewinsky. I have not even heard about the scandal, let alone that a girl from San Marino was involved. Holy smokes, I will check into this. That will give me something to do."

Vassar is maintaining diplomatic silence. The winter 2004 edition of alumni magazine Vassar Quarterly focuses on the achievements of class of 1992 graduate Cindy Bishop, a member of the US Olympic rowing team. Cindy's comment about her training routine, "Dear God, have I ever been in more pain," only looks as if it might have come from the lips of Mrs K Quinn.

With her local press ignoring her notoriety, Mrs Quinn might be forgiven for assuming that she can achieve in the US an anonymity that is now inconceivable in Britain. The normally austere, scandal-averse style of upmarket American journalism would normally make that possible. Only the weightiest US newspapers pay attention to foreign news and it is supposed to be significant, never salacious. Mrs Quinn's problem is that the US media has persuaded itself that her affair with David Blunkett meets that standard.

The former home secretary's affair with "a younger, married American" has attracted comment from New York to California. San Marino may not have noticed but the Los Angeles Times ran a commentary by The Observer's Robert McCrum entitled "Alas, the British still aren't French," in which he invited readers to recall Oscar Wilde's dictum that "One should never make one's debut in a scandal."

The New York Times, by tradition hostile to prurience, has also found sufficient significance to persuade itself that it is entitled to cover Mrs Quinn's difficulties. It published a dispatch from London entitled "Sex and The Spectator: Scandals turn the Tables" in which the sex lives of Boris Johnson, Petronella Wyatt, Rod Liddle and Alicia Monckton were all discussed alongside "prurient supposed details" of what "Britain's divorced Home Secretary and... Kimberly Fortier, 43, The Spectator's glamorous, married publisher...did together, and what a former husband of Ms Fortier said about it."

The tone seemed designed to convey contempt for British newspaper culture for caring about such trivia. But The New York Times stayed with the story and its studied pretence that it was treating the matter as an affair of state not simply a juicy scandal was undermined when it squeezed in a reminder about Boris and Petronella into a report revealing that Blunkett was "battling to clear his name" after further reports about his "now ended clandestine relationship with Kimberly Fortier, 43, the married publisher of the Conservative weekly The Spectator."

In the US capital, The Washington Post appeared more honest. It published a column jauntily headlined "Once Again, London Britches Falling Down." But in case that sounds too much like fun the author, London correspondent Glen Frankel, insists on justifying the story in terms of political significance not mere human interest. He explains: "What is more resonant is David Blunkett's class background and the fact that he was a very powerful member of the British government. He is one of the few British politicians who are recognised in America. His responsibility for homeland security made him relevant to Washington Post readers."

To Americans unwilling to admit an interest in the sex lives of the powerful, that justification is almost sustainable. Unlike most British politicians below the rank of prime minister, David Blunkett really was recognised in America before any allegations about his relationship with Mrs Quinn emerged. His April 2003 meetings with US Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge were deemed sufficiently important to justify a profile on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

Even that has not been enough for The Boston Globe. Its limited coverage of the scandal has come from wire services. Such puritanical resistance to covering the human and sexual aspects of the story might persuade Mrs Quinn that Boston would be a place to hide. She would be disappointed. Despite American journalism's sometimes insufferable pretence to gravitas, Americans who cannot tell Michael Howard from Charles de Gaulle have been informed of her antics. CBSNews.com described her as "a rather bland married and now pregnant woman" who came to London to conquer it and "also conquered Britain's Home Secretary."

When Mrs Quinn attended The Spectator's annual Parliamentarian of the Year awards last year, she had to slip in through a trade entrance to avoid the press pack. That would not happen at at Vassar, where alumni are renowned for their discretion. San Marino is not the same. Mitch Lehman admits: "Usually somebody would say something." But for all its delusions of grandeur, American journalism has found the saga of a Californian girl bedding a British statesman too juicy to ignore entirely. She has not achieved the fame of fellow Vassar alumnus Jackie Kennedy, but in her homeland Kimberly Quinn is perilously close to being as widely recognised as she once wanted to be.

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