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The American Debate: Sex, France, and clues amid abuse of power

From now on, whenever somebody tells me that the press has no business probing the private lives of politicians, I'll simply say this:

France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after his bail hearing in New York. In the U.S., it's a public service to point out leaders' character flaws. In French culture, not so much.
France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after his bail hearing in New York. In the U.S., it's a public service to point out leaders' character flaws. In French culture, not so much.Read moreRICHARD DREW / Associated Press, Pool

From now on, whenever somebody tells me that the press has no business probing the private lives of politicians, I'll simply say this:

"Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn."

The public has the right to know whether the men who hold or aspire to public office are in the habit of treating women like dirt. The issue isn't sex. It's abuse of power. Some powerful men come to believe that they are entitled to behave as they please. If the press covers up these crucial character clues, it abets that behavior.

That message is especially aimed at the French. I'll deal with them momentarily.

In the case of Schwarzenegger, the media tried to do the right thing. In fall 2003, on the eve of his gubernatorial election, the Los Angeles Times outed him as a serial groper of women. The paper took a lot of heat for its story; Republicans said that it was a liberal hit job, that it was a character smear, that it had nothing to do with Schwarzenegger's qualifications for the job. The voters swept him into office anyway, even after he essentially confirmed the story by confessing at a rally that "I was on rowdy movie sets, and I have done things that were not right."

I was at that rally, covering his California campaign. I remember that everybody got very quiet during his confession. Looking back now, however, I can't help but wonder how everyone would've behaved had he gone a step further and said: "I have also done one other thing that is not right. I cheated on my wife, Maria, and had sex with the hired help. I got the woman pregnant, and she gave birth to my love child five days after Maria gave birth to my son Christopher. I kept this a secret from Maria - until now. So I apologize for talking so much in this campaign about family values. To quote my character in the movie Commando, 'I lied!' "

Of course, had Schwarzenegger done that, had he confirmed the "love child" rumors that were circulating at the time, he would not have been able to trot out Maria Shriver as his liberal feminist shield. I covered a speech she delivered in Orange County, and I still have the notes. Today, the quotes are cringe-worthy: "You can listen to all the negativity [from] people who have never met Arnold, or who met him for five seconds 30 years ago. Or you can listen to me. . . . I wouldn't be standing here if this man weren't an A-plus human being."

We'll never know whether he would have lost that race had voters been armed with the requisite information to measure the gap between his rhetoric ("To me, family has always been the basic foundation of everything") and his reality. But, at minimum, it's clear that his behavior with the servant was consistent with his long-standing pattern of entitlement (powerful man takes a female subordinate as his prize) and that it would have been a public service to point out that he made no distinction between "rowdy movie sets" and rowdiness at home.

Which brings us to the French. They are something special.

From across the pond, they scoff at us for reporting on the private lives of public people. In 1993, when I was in Paris working on a political story, a prominent commentator named Philippe Moreau Defarges told me that he was perplexed by the '92 campaign coverage of Bill Clinton's womanizing. I started to explain "the character issue," but Defarges dismissively shook his head. The problem, he said, is your "puritanism." He said, "In the U.S., it is all about sex. Here, it would never be sex."

He was right. In France, it would never be about sex - not even if a powerful man wielded sex as a weapon against women. Such is the laissez-faire culture that spawned and abetted Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

If DSK (as the French call him) weren't confined to a Manhattan apartment and wearing an ankle monitor, having been criminally charged with sexually attacking a New York City hotel maid, he would still be the odds-on favorite to win the 2012 French presidential election. It had long been an open secret in France that DSK was a notoriously aggressive "seducer" of women, but the overwhelmingly male political class said his private life was nobody's business, and the press, cowed by tough libel and privacy laws, observed the code of silence. In 2009, one TV humorist dared to satirize DSK's "obsession with women" and was fired.

The French culture is rigged to protect powerful men, which is why the young French journalist Tristane Banon stayed mum for nine years about her allegation that DSK tried to rape her during an ostensible interview in 2002. (He wrestled her to the floor, she now says, and behaved "like a rutting chimpanzee.") She didn't want to be victimized a second time by a misogynist culture that apparently fails to distinguish between consensual sex and sexual assault.

Powerful French men have powerful friends. DSK has Bernard-Henri Levy, the noted philosopher-thinker. Levy insists that DSK is merely "charming and seductive," that there's no way the hotel maid could have been cleaning the room by herself, and that it was outrageous that an exalted figure such as DSK would be handcuffed and treated by the judge as "a subject for justice like any other." All of which brings to mind the Woody Allen line from Annie Hall: "One thing about intellectuals - they prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what's going on."

Perhaps if DSK had not been so cocooned by the culture, he would not have felt so entitled to leverage his power against women - culminating in an alleged assault on a powerless immigrant who was cleaning rooms to support her child. Perhaps now the French will realize that character matters, that the public deserves to have the full measure of a presidential candidate.

But, of course, they won't. Which brings me to John Ensign.

Hey, remember him? He was last week's scandal. He's the ex-Nevada senator who leveraged his power by sleeping with the wife of an underling (the wife and the underling both worked for him), then tried to hush them up by arranging for his rich parents to pay them $96,000. Ensign was deemed to be a hot presidential prospect until the story broke in the media - deservedly so, given his abuse-of-power issues. But since he is so charming and seductive, he'd probably be a perfect president of France.