Just two years ago a beautiful, small-boned woman led a remarkable funeral procession to honor a man who had been president of France for 15 years. She was his widow, accompanied to her husband's grave by her two grown sons. Right behind them was another woman, accompanied by her attractive daughter. All three of the offspring were the children of Francois Mitterrand, a brilliant but flawed man. Danielle Mitterrand, who was married to him for more than half a century, is an ardent human rights activist. Anne Pingeot, the mother of the pretty college girl, was once Mitterrand's mistress. At the time of the funeral, it was whispered that what the two women were doing, showing a common front, was simply in accordance with the dead man's last wishes. But later Mme. Mitterrand would explain that no, the very public display of unity on that sad day was all her own idea. "I think the French, and indeed many people around the world, have had enough of this hypocrisy of conformity," she writes in her autobiography. "We must admit that a person is capable of loving someone and loving them passionately. And then as the years pass, loving them differently, perhaps more deeply, but they still fall in love with someone else." About the limits of that love, she was under absolutely no illusions. "My husband excelled in the art of seducing the girls who came through here." I am reminded of Mme. Mitterrand's simple candor because of the lurid, panting sexual allegations that have been tossed about these past weeks in order to entertain a tabloid nation and ruin a chief of state. Hypocrisy, never far from the surface of American political life, and lust, never far from the surface of human existence, have banded together and, with the help of the media, basically obliterated some of our more decent instincts. Nor is this the first time such an attack has been carried out in this country -- to the puzzlement of the rest of the world. More than a decade ago, around the time the presidential candidate Gary Hart found his ambitions spiked by some monkey business, I found myself in Italy. It was to be a very long stay -- more than four years. Within a week I ran into Maxwell Rabb, then the U.S. ambassador in Rome. "You know they're laughing at us," Rabb said. "These Italians -- everywhere I go, dinner parties, the barbershop -- they say we're crazy. They don't know why Hart can't be president and have a girlfriend." Within short order I began to take his point about the differences between easygoing Them and censorious Us. The same year Hart fell from grace, Giovanni Goria, an obscure middle-aged politician with a sunken chest, held the reins of Italy's government for 228 unmemorable days. To honor the occasion, he posed for the cover of a national newsmagazine. Not alone, though. At each Goria side was an adoring babe, large of hair and breast, and neither young lady -- when you read the accompanying article -- with any clearly discernible connection to the prime minister. The newsmagazine had simply decided to spice up its dull cover boy by implying visually that he possessed the highest of political attributes: He was a lady-killer. Such an emphasis on animal magnetism, in the pope's back yard no less, remains a serious asset, every bit as valuable (and often as simulated) over there as the trappings of marital fidelity are here. A few years ago, when the billionaire entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi became Italy's prime minister, little was made of the fact that he had married his mistress, the actress Veronica Lario. In fact, he had met her as a married man, when she starred half-naked in the play "The Magnificent Cuckold"; voters seemed to be grateful for the photographs that detailed her brief career. But on the whole, Silvio was considered a family man. Like so many around the world, he had simply acquired more than one family. Of course a decade ago, I found this kind of hardheaded attitude toward sex a little unnerving. "What do you tell Italians when they laugh at us?" I asked Rabb. "I tell them we're a nation of idealists," the ambassador replied with an ironic shrug. "I say, We Americans are different from you. We feel strongly about marital fidelity in our politicians because of our idealism.' " Idealism. That kind of idealism has been swiftly transmuted into the dross of zealotry, and my guess is the day can't be far off when presidential candidates will be dunned for their sexual histories by an increasingly invasive -- I mean idealistic -- press. Is this so improbable? We already insist on knowing if, decades ago, they inhaled. There are no right answers to such questions, as any politician with a single human frailty knows. What terrors must sworn testimony concerning a private act hold for a high stakes player? No wonder deceptions and obfuscations have become so embedded in public speech. The fear of social sanctions is so great that it can easily overwhelm any fear of legal sanctions. We are shocked by politicians' lies, but we sack them for the truth. Then we turn around and pretend, as does the unimpeachable Dick Morris, that the truth would have been more salutary to a cheating man's career than, say, perjury. In the name of truth, we have permitted the office of the independent counsel to function as a sexual Geiger counter. To that end, Kenneth Starr and his minions are pitting friend against friend, threatening to deploy daughter against mother, Secret Service agents against the president they protect. In the service of virtue, Linda Tripp, a would-be author, has taped private conversations with Monica Lewinsky. And when her cornered victim says on one of these tapes that if she has to tell the president she's talked to Tripp about her love life, "I'm just going to {expletive} kill myself," the ultimate response to this threat -- whether hyperbolic or deadly serious -- is to hand over these confidences to the authorities. What's most interesting about America's lofty standards is that they apply only to elected officials. The rest of us fortunate folk live out our lives immune from their strictures. Within the media, for example, no stone goes uncast by occupants of glass houses. Unblushing pronouncements on character and analyses of what precisely Clinton means when he utters the word "improper" are made by a number of people who would, correctly, be outraged were their divorce papers or sexual resumes so parsed. Even that wise old political commentator Gennifer Flowers addresses Larry King and the nation with solemn mien: "When it comes to our role models -- is he saying to {the public} it's okay to mess around, commit adultery?" As though she had been at all times on another planet while he was committing it. "There is a sadness," she says. "I did love him." A soulful look from the woman who once provided all the loving details to Penthouse. Of course, there are no Gennifers, no Paulas, no Monicas petitioned to express their grievances to viewers in France, in Italy or even in Russia, where Clinton's testosterone level has lately become an object of veneration. This is not because the citizens of these nations are more immoral or less nosy than we are. They simply understand the nature of men in power. "The pattern of successful men having a lot of sex partners is a real one cross-culturally, because affairs and success seem to go hand in hand," says evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico. This priapic pattern, he says, shows up in 90 percent of all the societies that have ever been studied (some of them now extinct). "It all starts with what we call status-pursuit adaptation -- that's a psychological feature that is evolved by natural selection, and there is of course a genetic pattern to it." What male leaders frequently do with the political power they accrue, he adds, "is transform it into access to women." A powerful woman is generally more contained, preferring a mate of high status. Whereas for men: "Quantity is important; and of course the more status the man has, the more females." Thornhill is quick to point out that "just because something is evolved in no way implies it must occur." But ask him about fidelity in alpha males: "That's a tough one," he says. "Especially high-status men who have all that opportunity." After all, the Gennifers and Monicas of this world are out there, waiting for the likes of Bill, Silvio and Francois. It is folly to think that all young women are victims of slobbering potentates. Ambition and power are a match any day. How are we to know what seduced what? As for our president: He is, as we know, a glutton, not one to deny himself "access" to a delicacy of any kind. He is reckless in his desires and eclectic in his tastes. These may not be what we, as a discerning and idealistic people, consider his finest attributes. But neither has he been accused of trying to subvert the Constitution, nor of destroying his enemies by any means at his disposal. He is a philanderer. This may be regrettable. It is not impeachable. And can we be so very astonished that men, aggressive men in constant pursuit of mass approval, are also in need of other obvious forms of gratification? That seduction, for them, may become second nature? We elect them precisely because they appeal to us, sometimes on a surprisingly personal and elemental level. Can we accept the idea that certain women find them irresistible? Can we even allow for the possibility that their wives, who often have their own goals to pursue, understand them better than we think? That they, like the electorate, made some hard, informed decisions at the beginning, for which they now ask no pity? "I stayed with him because he was different. With him life was never boring," Mme. Mitterrand has explained about her husband. "I knew I was married to a seducer." Just as we knew we elected one. Twice. Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. CAPTION: Francois Mitterrand's widow, Danielle, and his mistress, Anne Pingeot, rear, at his 1996 funeral.