Sex, Lies, Arrogance: What Makes Powerful Men Behave So Badly?

From the alleged attempted rape by Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Arnold Schwarzenegger's fathering a child out of wedlock, what is it about power that makes men crazy?

  • Left: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters; Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

    Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who formally resigned on May 18, 2011

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    He was, however, a fatalist. Barely two weeks before his arrest, he had a quiet conversation with Libération editors and admitted that the three obstacles if he were to run for President would be "money, women and being a Jew." In fact, until the Sofitel scandal, the political challenge facing DSK was less his lechery than his lifestyle; it's hard to be a Socialist icon living the life of a plutocrat. Photographs of him climbing into a friend's $142,000 Porsche caused a furor, raising charges on the left that he was a "champagne Socialist." He even sued a Paris tabloid for writing that he was outfitted by a Washington tailor whose suits are reported to run for anywhere from $7,000 to $35,000 apiece.

    This was, in other words, a man of great contradictions with a great deal to lose, and his defenders and like-minded conspiracy theorists were quick to suspect a setup. Strauss-Kahn, they argued, was not the type to force himself on anyone. Admirers were more likely to throw themselves at him. Yes, he had a weakness for women, said his second wife Brigitte Guillemette: "But that doesn't mean that he could have done what he is accused of. I don't think I ever saw him lock a door. Violence is not part of his temperament. He has many faults but not that one."

    The defense escalated into all-out cultural battle: On the one hand, it was the French who came up with the notion of droit du seigneur, the special sexual liberties that the ruling class can enjoy. Social critics in the U.S. condemned the code of silence that prevented women from speaking up, the mentality that replaces Bourbon Kings with bureaucratic functionaries whose academic pedigree and choice of public service confer an automatic halo upon them. On the other hand, from various tony arrondissements, there was much outcry that the alleged victim was allowed to remain anonymous while DSK's perp walk made front pages around the world. "What do we know about the chambermaid?" was a headline in Le Monde . High-flying philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy took to the Daily Beast, a news website, to deplore a "grand" hotel that sent in only one maid (a buddy system would presumably be safer) and denounced the judge for not showing Lévy's longtime friend the respect befitting an alleged rapist of his international standing. The judge, Lévy complained, "pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other," even though he was a defender of the "proletarian nations" and "the most fragile and vulnerable" among us.

    Of course, if the charges prove true, the most fragile and vulnerable among us will seem to have been his preferred targets, in this case a maid who, had this happened in Paris rather than New York, would likely have thought long and hard before daring to report even a violent attack by a man in a $3,000 suite. If the French elite were appalled that an illustrious man, convicted thus far of no crimes, could be treated this way, Americans were appalled that he expected to be treated differently.

    "The transatlantic divide has really reopened," says Corine Lesnes, Washington correspondent for Le Monde . But she admits this episode will lead to some "soul searching" in the French media about whether the private lives of public figures need to be handled differently.

    Who's Puritanical Now?
    To those critics who were quick to accuse the U.S. of a reflexive Anglo-Saxon puritanism: it is well past time to retire that charge. Americans have a long history of electing and venerating the morally compromised, whether Thomas Jefferson, who is thought to have fathered children by a slave, or John F. Kennedy, with hot-and-cold-running girlfriends, including the one he reputedly shared with a Mob boss. There was, to be sure, a period of awkward adjustment in the 1990s, when the shadow world of rumored indiscretions found a public home on cable TV and in the nascent blogosphere; once Matt Drudge arrived, there would be no looking the other way, and it was no fun spending months on end watching a President lie with great conviction about his sex life.

    But that was not the end of the story. Bill Clinton left office with a more than 60% approval rating. In 2008, neither John McCain nor Rudy Giuliani considered a gothic personal past disqualifying. Senator David Vitter was re-elected in a landslide last year despite having shown up in the phone records of the D.C. Madam. And now Gingrich is back, with third wife Callista by his side — a better man, he argues, for the soul-searching journey prompted by his past mistakes. There is no privacy anymore, nor an expectation of it, and Americans may seem all too eager to catch the high and mighty in the act — but almost always with the tacit understanding that there will be a second act, and a third. What cultural DNA remains from those first Puritan forays onto American soil may be our love of a fresh start. So the tales of half-naked Congressmen posting personal ads on Craigslist or a governor pretending to walk the Appalachian Trail while actually rendezvousing with his mistress just fold into the great pageant of sin and redemption that is American politics and American life. If Tiger Woods is having trouble rehabilitating himself in the eyes of the public, it's not because of his appetite for escorts. It's because of the pathetic state of his golf game.

    What matters is not prudishness — we've left that far behind — but prudence, a sense that public figures should be discouraged from destroying themselves and their families, even if we gawk at the results when they do. And principle: that power is a privilege not to be abused. The cases that involve a lawmaker chasing pages around the cloakroom or a boss cornering a junior employee or a professor pressuring a student for sex all deserve to be taken seriously. And in cases that involve actual violence, they need to be treated like the crimes they are.

    — Reported by Bruce Crumley and Jeffrey T. Iverson / Paris; Jeffrey Kluger / New York; and Massimo Calabresi and Katy Steinmetz / Washington

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