Britain has sometimes fancied itself behind the Untied States in some important categories. But the British are working hard to surpass the United States in the matter of sex in high places. Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet shake-up has elevated a woman whose sexual history rivals President Clinton's for daring and lack of concern for others. Margaret Callaghan, the new leader of the House of Lords, has also been named to Mr. Blair's cabinet as minister for women. She might have been better suited as minister for men, with whom she has far more experience. The 58-year-old Baroness Jay, as she is known because of her one-time marriage to Peter Jay, the former British ambassador to Washington, was the subject of a Hollywood film called Heartburn, starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. The movie was based on a book by Nora Ephron, who was once married to the Washington Post's Watergate co-celebrity reporter, Carl Bernstein. Ms. Ephron's novel was a thinly veiled account of Mr. Bernstein's affair with Margaret Callaghan Jay while Ms. Ephron was seven months pregnant with Mr. Bernstein's child. The Express newspaper called that affair "adulterous and scandalous," refreshing language, indeed, in an era when anything goes and opinion polls long ago replaced Mosaic or any other law. While in Washington and romping with Mr. Bernstein, Mrs. Jay insisted on being called "co-ambassador" (this was before Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived and started acting as co-president). Predictably, the affair lead to the break-up of her 25-year marriage to Peter Jay, who retaliated by having his own affair with the nanny the couple employed to look after their three children. Ms. Ephron cattily referred to her rival as a "fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed." The Baroness eventually was through with Mr. Bernstein, but she wasn't through with married men. One account has it that married women "cower" when she walks into a room. After Mr. Bernstein, she had an affair with an economics professor, Robert Neild. His wife, Elizabeth, observed: "Margaret Jay is like a comet. She comes round once in a while, and somebody gets hit." Four years ago, the Baroness married Prof. Michael Adler, chairman of the National AIDS Trust. He, too, was married with children when their "relationship" began. Elizabeth Neild recalls one exchange with Margaret Jay. Mrs. Neild said to her: "I have my children to think about." Margaret Jay is said to have replied: "I have myself to think about." Anyone who believes the economy is all that matters and that what leaders do in their private moments should be of no public concern may wish to consider where this type of thinking leads. Elevating people with diminished personal character to leadership says that fidelity and infidelity are morally equivalent. That sends a message to the next generation that broken homes are no worse than intact ones, which social science and common sense tell us is not the case. While some think only about themselves, other lives are shattered and large numbers of children grow up without the unified family and role models they deserve. Doesn't this private behavior, then, ultimately affect public life? In this area, the British are attempting to bypass America. But President Clinton is doing what he can to narrow the sex gap. Worse, he apparently has lied about it under oath, something Americans may care about even more than infidelity. As Clinton's own role model, John Kennedy, said in another context, "We can do better."
© 1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate