The 18th century author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson said, “it was right that the law should give women so little power, since nature has given them so much.” The narcotic allure of female sexuality has certainly influenced, dominated and destroyed powerful men as the current predicament of Dominique Strauss Kahn, chief of the International Monetary Fund and probable French presidential candidate, who was arrested and charged with seven counts including rape and unlawful imprisonment of a chambermaid in a prominent Manhattan hotel, attests to.
If these egregious charges stick, it would be but another example of men behaving badly toward the powerless, and most conspicuously, toward women. As one scans the landscape of human history, this is hardly surprising since nature in its most pristine manifestations has always been ruled by one thing: mistreatment by the strong against the weak. So it should not be shocking when men like Kahn atavistically revert to form with a behavior that reflects, as Darwin noted about Homo sapiens, “the ineffable stamp of our lowly origins.” But the fact is that we are shocked and that says something different and, I think, better about us as a society than it has in the past. Just think about it. One of the most powerful men in Europe is arrested and imprisoned for allegedly attacking a 32-year-old immigrant chambermaid who was born and raised in Africa.
Here in America, sympathy seems to be weighted all on the side of the woman, the powerless, the underdog and none against one of the mighty lords of France. What would Henry VIII have said about all this? But then Henry VIII, while serially licentious, was English and hence we are less judgmental about him than we are about the awful French. Indeed, this political sex scandal has become a political index on what America thinks about the French and their attitudes concerning powerful men and their paramours. Reporter Brian M. Carney relays the results of a phone poll taken in France: “Just 14 percent of respondents were certain that Khan’s arrest was part of a political plot against him. That compares with 22 percent who are certain that it is a setup, and another 35 percent who said it was “probably a frame up, for a total of 57 percent who think it’s likely he was set up. If you count only those in France who politically identify with Khan, the number then soars to a stunning 70 percent.”
So what does all this mean? It means that this is just one more reason for Americans to hate the French. More seriously, the fact that this was not consensual but an alleged rape attempt puts it in another category entirely. Leaving this aside, it is interesting to gauge respective reactions to even non-violent sexual scandal especially when it relates to French officials. During President Clinton’s sex scandal in the White House, I had a friend who was as well read as anyone I’ve ever known who dismissed the entire episode as pure political partisanship. “Why if this was France,” he fulminated, “there would have been an investigation if the president didn’t have a mistress.” Perhaps these stereotypes have arisen because of the reputation of those Paris salons, or French being the language of love, or Gomez, in The Addams Family being driven to heights of amorous delirium whenever Morticia speaks French. But then Charles DeGaulle, France’s greatest hero since Joan of Arc, was a model of conjugal fidelity even while other leaders across the Atlantic gleefully debauched the marital bed with reckless abandon.
Nor are English leaders strangers to the metronomic beat of the libido; they are just more discreet and proper about it than the French libertines that populate the elites — or so we are told. When King Edward VII was dying, his wife, Queen Alexandra, sent a car to fetch his last mistress, society beauty Alice Keppel, to the king’s deathbed to bid the British monarch farewell. Very considerate — and no doubt a most touching scene. If you had bothered to ask the queen about it, I’m sure she would have said it was the civilized thing to do. Bluebloods back then and perhaps even today revolved around an unquestioned acceptance that power has privileges and those who were married to the throne or its heirs dutifully and reticently bowed to the royal prerogative.
This is no doubt also true for the political elite. After becoming the most unlikely of sex symbols, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Indeed, one high-placed dignitary blamed his infidelities on all the temptations he had to face from adoring women. Ignoring the self-serving narcissism, there might be something to this as opportunity is often more important than inclination when one is unfaithful. There are enough men out there who see no difference between monogamy and monotony but do not have the occasion or the means to sample the forbidden fruits of variety. Nevertheless, adultery, no matter how you slice it, is a crime against marriage for both the ordinary and the powerful. But we shouldn’t particularize libidinous behavior as being French or European. We don’t need a genealogy search to know that there isn’t a drop of French blood coursing through Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veins or for that matter Newt Gingrich or John Edwards.
So while sanctity is most heroically demonstrated in direct proportion to the level of temptation it confronts, we must remember that even the saintly avoided the occasion of sin (which is why they were saints), and everything I have seen and know tells me that most men are not angels. Religious scruples, having children and the civilized influence of women may rein in the polygamous instinct, but I’ll end with this advice one elderly woman got from her grandmother: “Never trust a horse, a gun or a man.” If she was alive today to read the headlines she might hastily add, “and not necessarily in that order.”