The reckless choices of the powerful

2011-05-16 09:08

Washington - Sex and power are no strangers. History is littered with tales of the powerful and privileged felled by sex scandals.

But make no mistake. If International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is found guilty as charged of attempting to rape a hotel maid in New York City, he would be in a league virtually of his own.

Few have been accused of a violent crime like Strauss-Kahn. The world financier and French presidential hopeful was charged on Sunday with criminal sexual act, unlawful imprisonment and attempted rape in New York City after a hotel maid said she was assaulted.

"Politics and power and sexual harassment certainly have a long history," said Michele Swers, associate professor of government at Georgetown University. "This being an attempted criminal rape is, I think, of an order of a different magnitude."

There is no shortage of powerful leaders who fell from grace for affairs, prostitutes and groping. Sexual indiscretions have weakened governments and buried political careers on both sides of the Atlantic, today and in ages past.

Among the most famous is the Profumo scandal in 1963 in which a British war secretary was forced to resign because he had an affair with a prostitute linked to a Russian spy.

Power an aphrodisiac

The Strauss-Kahn case raises some of the same questions that surface in any scandal where politics and sex intersect. Did the accused abuse power to engage in high-risk behaviour, and did power make him feel invincible, above the law?

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, former US President Bill Clinton, ex-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and 2012 presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich are just a few of the powerful who have faced that kind of scrutiny, although none had to answer to charges of violent crime.

"Power is an aphrodisiac, as is well known, and we know as well that power in one sense is often presumed to be power in another sense," said James Walston, professor of Italian politics at the American University of Rome.

"So a person who is head of the IMF might think he can get away with anything. Certainly Berlusconi appears to think that way."

Berlusconi, aged 74, a towering figure of Italy's centre right, is facing four concurrent trials for corruption, tax fraud and, most sensationally, sex with an underage prostitute and then using his office to cover it up. The sex charge followed years of rumours of his sexual misbehaviour.

Strauss-Kahn is no stranger to these questions. In 2008, he was investigated by the IMF over possible abuse of power over a brief affair with an economist at the Fund who was his subordinate. The affair was consensual and he was cleared, but he apologised publicly for "a serious error of judgment".

Supportive wife

France, like Italy, traditionally is quite tolerant of extra-marital affairs, unlike the United States. The out-of-wedlock daughter of former President Francois Mitterand attended his funeral. This time though, French politicians and the public were shocked.

The charges "struck like a thunderbolt", in the words of the leader of the Socialist Party to which Strauss-Kahn belonged.

Strauss-Kahn, aged 62, is due to appear in court later on Monday and his wife, a successful French media personality, has said she has "no doubt his innocence will be re-established".

It is rare for a politician to go to jail for a sex crime. Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was sentenced in March to seven years in prison for rape when he was a Cabinet minister in the late 1990s. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it showed "no person is above the law".

One pattern psychologists detect in top politicians is a readiness to engage in an extreme amount of risk-taking, said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, In the Strauss-Kahn case, if true, Farley said a crime would be "exceptionally risky".

"Risk-taking is one of the essential ingredients in highly successful or leading public figures and politicians," said Farley. "Strauss-Kahn (case) fits that bill."

Invincible

Clinton also fits the profile. He came from modest means, faced many ups and downs in his political path to the presidency, only to risk all when he had an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky in the White House.

Adulation awarded to high-fliers can also contribute.

"You have people who are committed supporters around you and they don't want to see anything bad happen to you in terms of career, so there will always be people who are willing to then cover it up," said Swers.

John Edwards, a US Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 and 2008, squandered his promising career by having an affair with a woman on his campaign, while his wife battled cancer. Elizabeth Edwards has since died.

Edwards blamed his meteoric rise in presidential politics and the fawning that came with it.

All that "fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences", Edwards told ABC News in 2008. He later admitted he had fathered the woman's child.

While a sense of strength and fearlessness and a near disregard of consequences can make for great, powerful leaders, the problems come when they do not acknowledge they are human, said Robert Weiss, founder and director of the Sexual Recovery Institute, which specialises in sexual addiction.

"If their narcissism or egotism isn't matched by a healthy dose of humility of what it means to be human ... and they run on their intellect and don't attend to their emotions on any level ... then they are bound for trouble," said Weiss.

Read more on:    imf  |  dominique strauss-kahn  |  bill clinton  |  silvio berlusconi  |  john edwards  |  italy  |  uk  |  france  |  us
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