Just about all of us know — and most of us begrudgingly accept — that the powerful, the affluent and the well-connected receive much more solicitous and preferential treatment than the rest of us do from maitre d’s, public officials and college admissions officers. Too often, as we have been told, it really is not what you know, but instead who you know and who knows you.
That’s not the way things are supposed to be here in America, where we have spilled a lot of blood to ensure equality before the law for all.
Let me state upfront: I do not know beyond what I have read in the papers about the former International Monetary Fund chief and, until recently, perhaps the next president of France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who has been indicted by a New York grand jury on seven counts — including the felonies of attempted rape and sexual abuse — of attacking a maid at a Manhattan hotel.
What we do know is that he, the Frenchman, 62, has power, wealth and a ton of global influence. By contrast, she, an immigrant from Africa, is the 32-year-old single mother of a 15-year-old girl.
While we do not know for certain what happened in Strauss-Kahn’s $3,000-a-night suite in the Sofitel on the morning of May 14, we do know that this is not about American Puritanism concerning the sex lives of public men versus the Europeans’ sophisticated acceptance of randy playboys in high office.
No, what this case is about is not romance or infidelity or even about sex.. It is about the alleged violence used by an immensely powerful man against a literally powerless woman.
In high-stakes politics, power is less often an aphrodisiac than it is a blunt instrument. Power too frequently is accompanied by a sense of entitlement by which the power-wielders feel free to exploit, to abuse, to take advantage of individuals who are relatively vulnerable and powerless.
In Washington, the exploited or abused individual could be an employee, a staff assistant or an intern — anyone over whom the powerful individual, either male or female, can hold the nuclear threat of dismissal or a negative reference.
What the Sofitel case does prove is that, first, the hotel authorities and then, more crucially, the New York police officers were willing to follow the evidence and to take the word of a hotel housekeeper — with no clout, no money and no friends in high places — and to act forcefully against a man with presidents on his speed-dial, a personal fortune and close friends in the highest reaches of world power.
This may well be an example of life imitating art — the art of TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, which tells the stories (“ripped from the headlines”) of New York police officers investigating and prosecuting, without fear or favor, the sometimes well-connected perpetrators of sexually based crimes.
The whole sorry case — which will permanently change, and probably not for the better, the lives of so many people — does have one positive message. In the United States, in New York City in the spring of 2011, the police and the district attorney were willing to stand for true equality before the law. And that is the U.S.A.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.