Sometimes writing for a weekly newsmagazine means being willing to ask a dumb question. Writing Time‘s cover story this week on the sexual trespasses of Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other powerful who did not happen to specifically get into trouble this week, Nancy Gibbs, one of the best to ever write in this format, asks the Duh-worthy question, “How can it be, in this ostensibly enlightened age, when men and women live and work as peers and are schooled regularly in what conduct is acceptable and what is actionable, that anyone with so little judgment, so little honor, could rise to such heights?”
Good question, Nancy–now why don’t you give us the answer? “By now social commentators have the explanations on auto-save: We know that powerful men can be powerfully reckless, particularly when, like DSK, they stand at the brink of their grandest achievement. They tend to be risk takers or at least assess risk differently — as do narcissists who come to believe that ordinary rules don’t apply. They are often surrounded by enablers with a personal or political interest in protecting them to the point of covering up their follies, indiscretions and crimes. A study set to be published in Psychological Science found that the higher men — or women — rose in a business hierarchy, the more likely they were to consider or commit adultery. With power comes both opportunity and confidence, the authors argue, and with confidence comes a sense of sexual entitlement. If fame and power make sex more constantly available, the evolutionary biologists explain, it may weaken the mechanisms of self-restraint and erode the layers of socialization that we impose on teenage boys and hope they eventually internalize. “When men have more opportunity, they tend to act on that opportunity,” says psychologist Mark Held.”
Delving into the deep secrets of this phenomenon is like delving into the mystery of why people like warm sunny afternoons. Even the most disciplined and moral of powerful people tend to try to get away with doing what they want to do, and because they are powerful, weaker people tend to permit them, if not actively encourage them. And when powerful people find themselves on thin ice, they invent high-minded moral reasons to do what they want to do. Ask Henry VIII, or Hitler, or Jack Kennedy, or Nixon, or Bill Clinton or Charlie Sheen. Everybody has his reasons. I need a son. I fear that I am going to die prematurely. The streets are in turmoil. I am a torpedo of truth.
What restrains them–if anything ever restrains them–are other people saying no. This, of course, is what must be killing Maria Shriver. People have known forever that Schwarzeneggar was a big, slobbering pig. As we reported it in Spy, one of his most effective pick-up lines was “Your bangability is very high tonight.” A lot of the most controversial of Heidi Fleiss’s business with the studios, as John Connolly reported in Us, was about supplying girls for Arnold. This couldn’t have been secret from Shriver, and it was certainly raised when he put himself forward for governor. Surely Shriver was an enormous help to his campaign when she publicly invested not only the credibility she had developed as a newscaster but the imprimatur of the Kennedys. “You can listen to all the negativity, and you can listen to people who have never met Arnold, who met him for five seconds 30 years ago, or you can listen to me.”
The peculiar circumstances of the Schwarzeneggar situation–the counterparty was not an ingenue or a stripper, but a member of the household staff–must be particularly galling to Shriver. The whle thing recalls the entry from the shrewd and perceptive Mary Chesnut, the premier diarist of the southern slavocracy. “Ours is a monstrous system,” she wrote at the start fo the Civil War. “Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad. This only I see: like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children–& every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in every body’s household but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think. . . . Alas for the men! No worse than men every where, but the lower their mistresses, the more degraded they must be.”
It is convenient to believe that men are different than women, or that rich men are different than the rest of us poor schlubs. It is comforting to think that bad behavior is somehow lodged in an easily idenitifed “other” that we can see and condemn. But the truth is that none of us is perfect. We are all sinners. Most of us do most of what we think we can get away with, and it is only the prospect of getting caught that restrains us. And that includes making up excuses and rationalizations for those people on whom we depend for emotional and financial security.
[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]