Presidential candidates stumble over lust, and the lust for power

A French politician has gotten himself into world-class trouble. But some of our American candidates have their own issues.

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn

A French politician has gotten himself into world-class trouble. But some of our American candidates have their own issues.

Celebrity sex is news, as you may have noticed in particular over the past several days.

Not just the run-of-mill Hollywood stuff, such as which unmarried star is pregnant by whom, or the most recently noted rounds of adultery among that cultural capital's notables. We're talking truly big news, such as careers rising or falling among prospective [residential candidates, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and the criminal charges against International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn alleging that he criminally assaulted a chambermaid in his New York hotel room.

Strauss-Kahn is in the hottest water. Married three times, and renowned otherwise as a womanizer, Strauss-Kahn, 62, got his hand slapped some two-and-a-half years ago after sexual harassment and abuse-of-power charges were brought against him at the IMF. An investigation led to no formal discipline but Strauss-Kahn promised not to do it again. He had resigned as France's finance minister in 1999 after being investigated (but later cleared) in a corruption case. He nonetheless led recent public-opinion polls as favorite for the French presidency.

A Socialist, Strauss-Kahn nonetheless was known for his extravagant lifestyle. His hotel suite in New York, where he allegedly assaulted the chambermaid, cost several thousand dollars nightly.

You have to love some of the details. The chambermaid in question was Guinean, meaning she no doubt spoke French. Strauss-Kahn bailed out of the hotel promptly after the incident but called the desk afterward to ask if they had found his cellphone, left behind in his room with other belongings during his hasty exit. By then the maid already had made her complaint.  The hotel security man, thinking quickly, said the phone had been found.  He would be pleased to deliver it to Strauss-Kahn, wherever he was. Strauss-Kahn told him to bring it to his departing Air France flight at Kennedy International Airport.

Informed of Strauss-Kahn's whereabouts, New York detectives had the flight held, entered the first-class cabin, and collared him. He currently is jailed without bail.

The IMF, of course, is in a dither. Its leader was headed to Europe to participate in new discussions about a Greek-government bailout. French politics, too, have gotten a jolt. Even the tolerant, worldly French, the Socialist Party is thinking, might not want Strauss-Kahn as their leader. Being a knave is one thing; being both a knave and fool is another.

Gingrich formally declared his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination after saying he had weighed carefully the downsides of his multi-marriage, publicly acknowledged adulterous past. He had addtionally converted to Catholicism, which meant, one guesses, that he now adhered to a more rigid moral code.

Daniels made it known that he was holding back from declaring his own candidacy because his wife, Cheri, had serious reservations about same. Media then discovered that Mrs. Daniels had once left Daniels to raise their four daughters and had married a man in California, only to several years later remarry Daniels and rejoin him and their children. Daniels and his wife both spoke last weekend to a GOP dinner in Indianapolis in what was regarded as some kind of test.

The consensus among viewers who saw the televised event was that Daniels did fine and his wife bombed. Since then, several GOP leaders have withdrawn their endorsements of a Daniels candidacy. Media, in further sleuthing, have found that Daniels was charged as a Princeton undergraduate with possesssion of marijuana, LSD, and other illegal drugs.

Monday morning (May 16), taking what might be considered pre-emptive action, Donald Trump announced his non-candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, perhaps figuring he would get out before media and political probing of The Donald got serious.

Past history suggests that politicians are in the greatest trouble not because of their personal-life conduct but when they appear to be hypocrites about it.

Voters knew, going in, that President Bill Clinton had an Arkansas past of serial womanizing and alleged ethical skating. Thus, they were inclined to give him a pass when similar charges were made about his conduct in the White House.

Had a pious Jimmy Carter conducted himself similarly, however, he would have been sent back to Plains, Georgia, post-haste. Voters knew in 1968 and 1972 that Richard Nixon had a long established reputation for low politics and character assassination — hence his nickname "Tricky Dick" — whereas his adversaries, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, were unquestioned straight arrows. But they went for Nixon anyway, rejecting him only later when fresh constitutional abuses became too much to tolerate. Sex was not an issue in those campaigns; all three men were known as committed family men.

Many American presidents and would-be presidents have been well known womanizers. Bets were placed at the 1956 Democratic convention as to which vice-presidental aspirant, Sen. Estes Kefauver or Sen. John Kennedy, had the most sexual conquests. (Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson left the vice presidential decision to the convention, making no personal choice. Kefauver won a close vote but Kennedy's exposure gave him a headstart on the 1960 nomination.) New York Gov. and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was known as a world-class womanizer and reportedly died of a heart attack in a mistress's arms.

Sen. Gary Hart dropped out of the 1988 Democratic presidential-nominating campaign after telling reporters who pressed him about rumors of his womanizing to follow him and see if they found any misbehavior. They did and they did; Hart promptly withdrew.  His fatal error came in his denial and not in the womanizing per se. And need I mention former Sen. and Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards?

Lifestyles in high-level politics can be similar, in fact, to those in Hollywood. In both instances you are dealing with often narcisstic personalities seeking constant applause and approval — and sexual conquests can help provide that. You also find in both industries people who come to believe that their power and specialness exempt them from the normal rules that ordinary people must follow. The financial industry, too, has more than its share of the same types who believe they are beyond mere mortals' rules, as the recent financial collapse demonstrated.

Sex, power, applause — a real high until you cross lines beyond your audience's tolerance.

Gingrich and Daniels have been hurt, but not fatally, by the fresh attention being paid to their non-public lives — probably hurt no more than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is hurt by his Mormon religion.

Strauss-Kahn, however, faces a real uphill climb to rehabiliate himself in French politics or international financial leadership. Sitting in a New York jail, without bail, charged with assaulting a chambermaid, he cannot credibly lead the International Monetary Fund. He either must resign there or ask for an indefinite leave, after which he would need to resign in any case. French voters in the past have forgiven any number of transgressions by their elected leaders. But, unless the charges prove baseless, Strauss-Kahn probably is done in French politics. Late Monday, a well-known French novelist said she was bringing charges against him for a 2002 sexual assault and rumors suggested others might be following suit.

As the French say, his alleged assault against a chambermaid was "worse than a crime; it was a blunder."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of