WASHINGTON -- I write often about the problem of entitlement spending. Today's topic is the problem of entitlement behavior.
Judging from the headlines, both are out of control.
By entitlement behavior, I mean the apparent belief of too many political figures -- make that too many male political figures -- that the ordinary rules of acceptable conduct do not apply to them. Exhibits A, B and C are former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Nevada Sen. John Ensign.
Their alleged or admitted actions differ, but these episodes are linked by more than improper sexual activity. These men seem to have thought they could get away with this behavior -- not despite their celebrity and power but, at least in part, because of it.
Strauss-Kahn deserves the presumption of innocence but not the benefit of willful blindness to his reputation for sexual aggressiveness. When the "Great Seducer" was named to the IMF post in 2007, French journalist Jean Quatremer wrote on his blog, "The only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relationship to women. Too forceful, he often borders on harassment. It's a flaw known about in the media, but nobody is talking about it openly (we are in France)."
A few years later, an IMF economist said she felt pressured into having an affair with the managing director, writing to investigators that "this man has a problem that, perhaps, made him unfit to lead an institution where women work under his command." The IMF rebuked Strauss-Kahn for a serious error of judgment but imposed no other consequences. It would be no surprise if Strauss-Kahn took away from the episode that he could get away with these pressure tactics, that he was exempt from accepting that non means non. Enabling is the handmaiden of entitlement.
Strauss-Kahn's defenders have suggested that any sex was consensual, but the notion of consent in these circumstances is jarring: an immigrant housekeeper cleaning a hotel suite is so swept away by the allure of the powerful guest that she cheerfully agrees to sex? Certainement, monsieur. A votre service. Shall I leave a chocolate on your pillow?
Schwarzenegger's sins are of a different character. The affair and subsequent pregnancy occurred before he was in public office; the more grave injury is to the wife and family he deceived, not to the state he once governed. The allegations against Strauss-Kahn are more serious, but from the spousal point of view the Schwarzenegger betrayal -- occurring in your own home and continuing over so many years -- seems the more unforgivable.
Yet the familiar elements of entitlement and enabling -- not least by Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver -- are present in the Schwarzenegger scenario as well. During the 2003 gubernatorial campaign, when Schwarzenegger was accused of having groped more than a dozen women, Shriver blasted such "gutter journalism" and announced, "I wouldn't be standing here today ... if my husband were not an A-plus human being." I don't mean to be cruel, but in retrospect there seems to be some grade inflation going on here. At the time, the child that Schwarzenegger had with the couple's housekeeper was 6.
The Ensign situation is in some ways the most disturbing because it combines flagrant misuse of public office with unforgivable personal betrayal. According to the report released by the Senate Ethics Committee, the Nevada Republican had an affair with his wife's best friend, who also happened to be the wife of the senator's best friend.
The woman, Cynthia Hampton, was also Ensign's campaign treasurer; her husband, Doug Hampton, was the senator's senior aide. The report described Cynthia Hampton as feeling pressured into having the affair and fearful that she would lose her job if she broke it off. Once Doug Hampton discovered the affair, Ensign arranged for -- and, according to the ethics report, lied to the Federal Election Commission about -- a severance payment of almost $100,0000.
More disturbing, the senator facilitated Doug Hampton's violation of the one-year ban on lobbying by "pressuring contributors and constituents to hire Mr. Hampton even though he had no public policy experience or value as a lobbyist other than access to the senator and his office." When one Nevada constituent balked at hiring Hampton, Ensign told an aide to "jack him (the constituent) up to high heaven and tell him that he is cut off from the office."
The entitlement problem that merely involves out-of-control spending will be hard enough to solve. The one that reflects out-of-control human nature will be even harder.
(Ruth Marcus is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. E-mail responses may be sent to ruthmarcus@)washpost.com.)