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Schwarzenegger's 'incident' and the course of California history

May 18, 2011 |  1:19 pm

DSK-EPA The universe sure has a droll sense of timing.

First there's Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund who was, until he was yanked off an Air France flight and now sits in jail at Rikers Island on suspicion of sexually assaulting a hotel maid, the leading candidate to take on Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency of France.

The French press, deeply skittish when it comes to covering the personal lives of its public figures, evidently for legal as well as cultural reasons, is looking at itself in the mirror and asking whether it's been too forgiving or too timid in light of complaints now surfacing about DSK's "past conduct."

Most of France only found out about former President Francois Mitterrand's "second family" as Mitterrand was ailing, and the outrage was directed largely at the press that reported it not at Mitterrand. (That changed a bit when it turned out Mitterrand had sometimes put up his "second family’’ in public buildings at public expense.)

Many Europeans have sneered at Americans for getting our knickers in a twist over politicians' sexual misconduct (although Americans have been more likely to criticize "family values" politicians who had been caught hypocritically with those self-same knickers down).

When it comes to the public discourse on public matters, personal behavior can distract voters and reduce politics to matters of personality and not policy; it's much easier for the media to report on, and much easier for the public to understand and to judge, sexual misconduct than it is to master complexities like, say, raising the debt ceiling, which requires the marshaling of facts as well as morals. 

Arnold And now there's Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is revealed to be the father of a 10-year-old child by someone who worked for 20 years right in his house, both before and after the child's birth.

When it comes to DSK and Schwarzenegger, it is beyond question that rape is altogether and entirely different from infidelity -- by a long shot.

But the world that is now tsk-tsking Schwarzenegger for apparently consensual extramarital sex that produced a child surely includes some of the same people who heaped scorn on The Times in 2003, for stories before the recall election that made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor.

Those stories recounted unwelcome and unwanted groping incidents detailed by women who had encountered and worked with Schwarzenegger. After the stories ran, Schwarzenegger responded, with his wife, Maria Shriver, backing him up. He didn't go into detail, but he did apologize thusly: "Yes, I have behaved badly sometimes. Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets," and did things "I thought were playful that now I recognize that I have offended people." Right after the election, he also said he'd hire private investigators to look into the women's allegations -- a plan he abandoned within a month.

What's stupefying now -- epoustouflant, as the French say -- is to realize that when he was making these apologies and denials and explanations, a child he had fathered out of wedlock with an employee was already a year or two old.

Some readers who hammered the reporters and the reportage in 2003, complaining about "invasion of privacy" and "irrelevance" during the gubernatorial campaign, may now the same ones now demanding of reporters, "Gee, why didn't you tell us about this child before?"

DSK's arrest will surely change French politics.

What about Schwarzenegger and California? If California had known about the existence of this child before the 2003 recall would Schwarzenegger have lost? The fact that his wife left him in January, right after she found out about the child, says to me that she probably wouldn’t have stood by her man and tolerated that behavior as she did in defending him in 2003 against the groping allegations. This "incident" was orders of magnitude different.

Alternative history time: How different might those seven years have been with a governor not named Schwarzenegger in Sacramento? And how much better off might California have been? Seriously -– how could things have been much worse?

RELATED:

Arnold Schwarzenegger's failings

Lopez: Schwarzenegger's lies have a familiar ring

IMF chief's arrest stirs up anti-Americanism in France

The American commentary on France's reaction to DSK's alleged sex scandal

-- Patt Morrison

Photos, from top: IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn; former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Credits: Horacio Villalobos / European Pressphoto Agency; Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

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