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A perp walk kills a political career

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It’s almost enough to give socialism a bad name.

We don’t know whether Dominique Strauss-Kahn — who heads the International Monetary Fund and, until a few days ago, was likely to be the Socialist Party candidate for president of France — is guilty of the alleged sexual assault for which he was arrested. Like anyone, he is presumed innocent until court proceedings prove otherwise.

We do know, however, that at the time of the reported incident on Saturday, Strauss-Kahn was resident in a $3,000-a-night luxury suite at a posh midtown Manhattan hotel. We also know that when he was taken into police custody hours later, aboard a Paris-bound jetliner that was moments from takeoff at John F. Kennedy International Airport, police found him comfortably ensconced in the first-class cabin.

I didn’t think this was how socialists were supposed to roll.

The tinge of opulent decadence that colors the whole episode would seem, at first impression, to cast a dishonorable light on powerful, unaccountable, jet-setting international bureaucrats in general, with perhaps a special spotlight of shame for the French-intellectual variety. But Strauss-Kahn, who is based at IMF headquarters in Washington, was apparently in New York on private business. It is conceivable that he and his peers, while carrying out their official duties on behalf of humanity, make do with hotel rooms costing less per night than most workers of the world earn in a year.

Then again, had it been an IMF trip, Strauss-Kahn would have been covered by diplomatic immunity — and thus, perhaps, might have avoided the indignity of being held overnight in the Special Victims Unit lockup while detectives searched his person for potential DNA evidence. He almost certainly would have been spared the handcuffed “perp walk” before a frenzied scrum of photographers as he was transferred to court for arraignment.

It’s hard to look at Strauss-Kahn’s predicament without a sense of irony and perhaps a touch of schadenfreude. There is nothing remotely amusing, however, about the alleged assault — which, I should note, his attorney categorically denies.

Whatever happened took place at the Sofitel, one of the sleeker of New York’s upper-echelon hotels. A 32-year-old female housekeeper — according to published reports, an African immigrant — entered Strauss-Kahn’s suite to clean up, believing the guest had already departed. In her account, Strauss-Kahn emerged naked from the bathroom. She apologized and tried to leave, but Strauss-Kahn allegedly blocked her way, accosted her in the suite’s bedroom and then sexually assaulted her in the bathroom.

The housekeeper reported the alleged attack to her supervisors, but by the time police were called, Strauss-Kahn had checked out. He later called the hotel to say that he believed he had left his cellphone behind, however, and, according to published reports, a fast-thinking hotel employee told him — falsely — that the phone had been found and asked where it could be delivered. This is apparently how authorities learned he was at JFK, waiting to board an Air France flight to Paris. Airport police swooped in and made the arrest as the jet prepared to push back from the gate.

Strauss-Kahn’s arrest had immediate and far-reaching impact. The most definitive seemed to be the extinction of his political career — and with it, perhaps, the best chance the Socialist Party might have had of defeating President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s election. A perp-walk photo is the kind of thing no politician recovers from. Well, no politician except former D.C. mayor Marion Barry.

And the arrest came amid delicate, complicated and urgent negotiations to rescue the European Union’s most threatened economies. Strauss-Kahn was a key figure in the ongoing talks, and while others can pick up where he leaves off, the financial markets could be unnerved by his sudden absence.

Commentators in France expressed shock, outrage and embarrassment. Even if the New York allegations turn out not to be true, the incident revived memories of an admittedly improper affair that Strauss-Kahn had with a subordinate. French newspapers quickly produced stories recounting what they described as Strauss-Kahn’s long history of aggressive, obnoxious, even predatory behavior toward women.

It’s useful to be reminded that there was a time when powerful men could expect such incidents to be dismissed as misunderstandings or indiscretions or peccadilloes, not prosecuted as criminal assaults. Yes, this sounds like the age of the dinosaurs. Dominique Strauss-Kahn gives every evidence of being one.

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions or comments before or during the discussion.

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