A Week of Shocks but Few Surprises
They were open secrets. Everyone knew. And maybe the lesson this week is that people should pay more attention to what they know.
Everyone knew Newt Gingrich was combustible, that he tended to blow things up, including, periodically, himself. He was impulsive, living proof that people confuse “a good brain” with “good judgment.” He had bad judgment, which is why he famously had a hundred ideas a day and only 10 were good. He didn’t know the difference and needed first-rate people around to tell him. But the best didn’t work with him anymore, because he was unsteady, unreliable, more likely to be taken with insight-seizures than insights.
He was the smartest guy in the room, who didn’t notice the rooms had gotten smaller. So he was running his own show. Boom.
In his famous “Meet the Press” interview, he was trying to differentiate himself from the field. He was likely thinking he’d go for the Mike Huckabee vote now that Mr. Huckabee is gone. That vote is populist-tinged, socially conservative but generally supportive of big-government programs. Newt’s party and competitors support Paul Ryan’s budget-cutting plan. Newt didn’t think all aspects of that plan would go over with the American public.
If he’d said that, he would have been fine, and there were lots of ways to say it. Such as: “The Ryan plan is serious and courageous. But I oppose changes in the delivery system of Medicare and think we should go another route, so I do not support that aspect of it.”
Instead he used slashing, dramatic language and seemed to damn the entire enterprise. The Ryan plan isn’t flawed, it’s “right-wing social engineering.” It’s “imposing radical change.”
After the firestorm he went on a political perp walk, more or less denying he’d said what he said, and then blaming it on others. This was followed by reports he had been in hock to Tiffany’s – Tiffany’s! – for up to half a million dollars. This is decidedly unpopulist behavior, and to Republicans sounded too weird, too frivolous, flaky and grand.
I said last week I had yet to meet a Gingrich 2012 voter. Now I won’t have a chance to.
People in journalism are surprised. But they wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d been paying attention to what they know: that Newt blows things up, including himself.
The allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who stepped down as chief of the International Monetary Fund after being charged with seven counts including attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment, are just that, allegations. He’s been indicted, not convicted. But half the French establishment knew about what they called his woman problem, and at least one previous accusation of harassment. It was an open secret. “Everyone knows that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine,” said Gilles Savary, a member of the European Parliament Socialist party. He “doesn’t try to hide it.”
DSK, as he’s known, is almost a classic villain – elegant, august, satyrlike in his multithousand-dollar suits and his multithousand-dollar suite. He is the perfect “champagne socialist,” as they’re now calling him, who preys on the weak – for who is less defended and more at the mercy of the world than a 32-year-old hotel maid, a widow, a West African immigrant working to support herself and her daughter?
But what is most startling about the story is not the charge that a powerful man did a dreadful thing. It is the utter and profound difference between the U.S. response to the story and the French response.
America was immediately sympathetic to the underdog. The impulse of every media organization, from tabloid to broadsheet to cable to network, was to side with the powerless one in the equation. The cops, the hotel’s managers, the District Attorney’s office – everyone in authority gave equal weight and respect to the word of the maid. Only in America (and not always in America) would they have taken the testimony of the immigrant woman from Africa and dragged the powerful man out of his first-class seat in the jet at JFK.
In France, the exact opposite. There, from the moment the story broke, DSK was the victim, not the villain. It was a setup, a trap, a conspiracy. He has a weakness for women. No, he loves them too much. Hairy-chested poseur and Sarkozy foreign-policy adviser Bernard-Henri Levy sneeringly referred to “the chambermaid,” brayed about DSK’s high standing, and called him “a friend to women.” Jean Daniel, editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, sniffily asked why “the supposed victim was treated as worthy and beyond suspicion.”
Why wouldn’t she be treated as worthy, buddy? One is tempted to ask if it’s the black part, the woman part or the immigrant part.
As David Rieff wrote in The New Republic, to French intellectuals, DSK deserves special treatment because he is a valuable person. “The French elites' consensus seems to be that it is somehow Strauss-Kahn himself and not the 32-year-old maid who is the true victim of this drama.”
Americans totally went for the little guy. The French went for the power.
Lafayette would weep.
Someone once sniffed, “In America they call waiters ‘Sir.' ” Bien sur, my little bonbon. It’s part of our unlost greatness.
The French are a very great people. They have filled the world with so much beauty, you have to wonder if God didn’t send them down here just for that. As David McCullough observes in his tender new book, “The Greater Journey,” generations of Americans, starting in 1820 or so, journeyed to Paris to learn the best in art, medicine, science and literature. They came back and filled our nation with the innovation and expertise they’d acquired there. The French didn’t just enrich us, they helped America become itself.
Today they are great talkers, but for all their talk of emotions, and they do talk about emotions, they need, on this story at least, an attitude adjustment. They need to grow a heart. If the charges are true, this isn’t a story about sex, romance and the war between men and women, it is about violence, and toward a person who is almost a definition of powerlessness.
Their mindless snobbery is unworthy of them.
We finish with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has finished himself. The scandal surrounding him this week is not precisely a public concern. He is not now holding office, and if he had plans or further ambitions in that area they are over. The story is not shocking – he has admitted bad behavior in the past, there have been longtime rumors, “Everyone knows.” But still it took you aback. Why? The level of creepiness and the nature of the breach. The mother of the former governor’s child worked for him, for them, for 20 years – another unequal power arrangement – meaning 20 years of fiction had to be maintained. “In my home!” as Michael Corleone said in “Godfather II.” “Where my wife sleeps . . . and my children play with their toys.” The rotten taste of this story will not fade soon.
Human sin is a constant, none are free, and anyone who is shocked by it is a fool or lying. Even so, what a week, full of human surprises. But we wouldn’t be so surprised if we paid more attention to what we know, and built our expectations from there.