Why is it that we cannot read any discussion of a political sex scandal, or a sex scandal involving a politician, without pseudo-sophisticated comments about the supposedly different morals of Americans and Europeans? And why is it that this goes double if the politician is French, or if the reactions being quoted are from Gallic sources? And when did this annoying journalistic habit become so prevalent? It must have sprung up quite recently, or at least since the time when Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy were presidents of their respective countries. The first man was a strict and fastidious Puritan who never gave his wife Yvonne a moment’s cause for complaint, while the second was a sensational debauchee who went as far as importing a Mafia gun-moll into the White House sleeping quarters. Yet the American culture, which regards Kennedy as a virtual Galahad, is the supposedly shockable one, while in France—ah, la France—a much more broad-minded and adult attitude prevails.
Surely France and its partisans are not saying that the attempted rape of a chambermaid would not rearrange so much as an eyebrow in the supposedly refined salons of Paris? (After all, the endlessly cited François Mitterrand may have had a daughter out of wedlock, but he took good care to keep it a secret for as long as he could.) The problem arises from mentioning the two types of sexual behavior in the same breath. A related problem derives from the belief that Americans will not tolerate marital infidelity from their politicians.
Take two recent episodes on this side of the Atlantic: the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the forced resignation of Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank. To hear Clinton’s defenders talk at the time, you would have imagined that he was impeached for receiving oral sex in the Oval Office (an endless source of pretended amusement and bewilderment on the part of the French faction), while to hear the detractors of Wolfowitz you would have had to believe that he arranged special treatment for a bank employee with whom he was conducting an affair.
In fact, Clinton’s problem arose from the fact that he was exploiting a junior employee and lying about it under oath in the course of a lawsuit. That lawsuit in turn arose from an episode in which he had made use of his political office to “hit on” young women in his employ. Not content with forcing his whole Cabinet to join in the deception, Clinton used his own staff to suggest that Monica Lewinsky was “stalking” him, an accusation that was highly defamatory and damaging and might well have been believed if she had not been in possession of proof. This extremely sordid behavior led to the surfacing of many earlier allegations. These included charges of coerced sex, amounting to rape, from more than one believable witness. (The story of that revolting conduct is told in my book No One Left To Lie To.) But a majority of the country made light of the entire business, regarding it as a “peccadillo” or private matter. Two of Clinton’s hastily recruited spiritual advisors, Jesse Jackson and Billy Graham, even defended the exercise of his special needs as an alpha male, overlooking the crucial fact that his entire defense consisted of denying having done so. Jesse Jackson has gone on to admit the fathering of an out-of-wedlock child, without any noticeable effect on the rate of his pious public appearances. So it seems that the American public is by no mean as censorious either as it believes itself to be or as others believe it to be.
Shaha Riza had been a senior employee of the World Bank before Paul Wolfowitz was appointed, and their long-term and stable relationship was no secret. The decision to find her another post was made in order to avoid even the faintest appearance of any conflict of interest. There was not the scintilla of a suggestion of any sexual harassment or exploitation. But a political vendetta, in which many high-minded European figures took an extremely active part, made it impossible for him to continue in his post. Contrast this with the letter sent to the investigators appointed by the IMF to look into the “affair” between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Piroska Nagy, a female employee who had been subjected to unwanted attentions but had finally succumbed to them. Contesting the finding that their relationship met the proper definition of “consensual,” she described Strauss-Kahn as “a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command.” (Her delicate phrasing is somewhat outdone by that of Tristane Banon, a young reporter who claims to have suffered an earlier attempted rape at his hands, in the course of which he behaved like “a rutting chimpanzee.”) The IMF nonetheless decided that a formal apology would meet the case of Nagy and that no abuse of power had occurred. Exactly who, here, has been demonstrating astonishing naivete in matters sexual?
The belated breakup of the Schwarzenegger-Shriver marriage and the hard time being given to Newt Gingrich by the “social conservatives” may seem to reaffirm the idea that broken marriage vows and a political career are not easily compatible in America. But in Paris, it is being openly said that Strauss-Kahn was the victim of some kind of setup. Much hypocrisy is, of course, involved in both reactions. But of the two, the display of the Gallic “shocked—shocked” reflex is by far the least “adult.”
Christopher Hitchens’ Kindle Single, The Enemy, on the demise of Osama Bin Laden, has just been published.