Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. — Lord Acton, 1887
Stories of sexual infidelity, hypocrisy and sleaze permeate American politics across party lines.
The shortlist in the last few years alone includes Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, Republican Sen. David Vitter, former Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer, former Republican Sen. John Ensign, and now the Terminator, former Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But as despicable (and titillating) as these sordid tales may be, they absolutely pale beside the allegations of violent depravity currently facing the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. These take my breath away: the leading candidate to assume the French presidency — a 62-year-old man staying in a $3,000-a-night New York City hotel room — is accused of charging out of a shower, buck naked at noon, to sexually assault and attempt to rape a 32-year-old chamber maid who has entered his suite to clean it.
Incredible, or, as his countrymen (or at least women) might say, incroyable.
It’s a story so astonishing that so far it raises more questions than it provides answers. The first question, of course, is always that of guilt or innocence. Already there are those in France suggesting that this has somehow been trumped up by provocateurs of the party of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
But the idea seems terribly far-fetched. Even if the maid were a plant, a cloak-and-dagger fantasy, how does one “provoke” criminally insane behavior from anyone but a sociopath?
If, on the other hand, the allegations against Strauss-Kahn prove substantially true, they in some ways seem even harder to explain.
How, one wonders, could he have lived so long in the public eye without serious scrutiny of similar behavior, hints of which have surfaced before (a French journalist, after all, four years ago said in a televised interview that a politician, whom she later identified as Strauss-Kahn had attempted to rape her, The New York Times reports)?
Is Strauss-Kahn crazy or simply so arrogant that he believes he can rape women with impunity? And does that arrogance stem from the knowledge that he’s tried — or succeeded — before, without having been caught or suffering any consequences?
These troubling questions likely will linger for the French, who may be angered by Strauss-Kahn’s public humiliation in having to appear in a police lineup and in handcuffs, but who should be more embarrassed by a political culture whose male chauvinism is legion and may have run aground.
As Elaine Sciolino writes in today’s Times:
PARIS — The ritual follows a clear script: a scandal threatens to destroy the reputation of a powerful figure in France. Politicians say they are shocked. Friends say they are incredulous. Journalists debate whether they should have investigated rumors and revealed secrets. The dust settles. The status quo returns. Private life is protected.
Not that a culture that tolerates its leaders’ mistresses with a shrug should be equated with one that tolerates violent abuse of women. The two are not the same.
But, in the strange and insular world of the richest and most powerful, could the perception that it’s fine to have “kept” women blur into the misperception that there are no limits to conquest and disdain?
For France, a country founded on the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality, this entire tawdry episode can’t easily be shrugged off.