When he was secretary of state, Henry Kissinger was often — and deliberately — seen in the company of attractive actresses, including Jill St. John and Candice Bergen. Kissinger, whom nobody ever accused of being a matinee idol physically, offered this explanation for his seeming appeal to beautiful women: "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."
Repeatedly we have been told that power corrupts. Thank goodness that is an overstatement. Power does not necessarily corrupt. But power does almost always reveal character — or its absence — in the individual who wields it. This month, in a courtroom in Lille, a city in northern France, where Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, is charged with "aggravated pimping," which carries punishment of up to 10 years in prison and $1.7 million in fines, the testimony, especially the defendant's, provides a most unpretty picture of the arrogance of power and the power of arrogance.
First, to be clear about French law, sex with prostitutes is not illegal, but the soliciting or procuring of prostitutes is a crime. Strauss-Kahn, a self-acknowledged master of the universe, openly admitted his active participation in group sex parties organized in his honor: "I had a very hectic life, with just a few outlets for recreation, and these sessions were just that." But "there were only 12 parties in total — that is, four per year over three years" — when he was working tirelessly, as he reminded the court, "saving the world" after the global financial crisis.
The case hangs in large part on whether the former IMF chief knew that the women at these group sex parties were being paid to be there. Sounding more than a little like the "shocked" piano player in a house of ill repute, Strauss-Kahn insisted, "I am horrified at the practice of using prostitutes." How did he explain how all these women were willing to have sex with him? "What can I say? It's nothing to be proud of, but there have been 10 times that I've found myself in a situation where a woman threw herself at me."
This dumpy 65-year-old man, the living personification of sleaze in a $5,000 suit, turns out to be a babe magnet? He wants us to believe he sees himself as some sort of French-speaking George Clooney. Sorry, but even male conceit and self-delusion do have their limits. It wasn't your charm or your after-shave, Dominique, that led to your orchestrated extramarital relations.
Let's be clear. The women were there, as they stated in court, not as volunteers and not because the guest of honor was an irresistible hunk but because they were paid cash money to be there. The sex parties were organized because the IMF big cheese who craved them had the power to bestow political favors. As businessman David Roquet, who helped put together those special occasions, testified, he did so for solely "professional" reasons.
This is not a Gallic version of the Salem witch trials. But it does show the inner ugliness of this once-powerful individual, who believed he was entitled to use and abuse fellow human beings in the service of his vanity and dark obsessions. He will not be missed.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.