For powerful men, it's a familiar story with a familiar ending

December 12, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

"Power is the great aphrodisiac."

- Henry Kissinger

Was Ed Norris not paying attention?

Did the name Bill Clinton not ring a bell? Or Gary Hart? Or JFK?

Were there not enough cautionary examples? Not enough powerful figures brought low by sexual recklessness? Maybe someone should have told The Commish that sometimes these things get out. When they do, they have a way of ruining reputations and careers, tarnishing legacies, imperiling marriages.

The good news for Norris may be that a little infidelity - well, a lot, apparently - may be the least of his troubles now. In an indictment handed down this week, Norris was charged with illegally spending about $20,000 from a police fund, allegedly including a number of expenditures on lady friends. If convicted, he faces the possibility of 45 years in prison.

Still, you have to wonder, was he asleep through all those other sex scandals? Did he learn nothing?

If not for sexual antics, we might be entering a Gary Hart Federal Courthouse today. We would have been spared the ordeal of Clinton's impeachment. We might be even more admiring of Kennedy, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We might remember men like Wilbur Mills and Bob Packwood without snickering.

The fact that we know about the sexual dalliances of all these men should be lesson enough for all future public figures. Any oath of office should also imply a vow of fidelity. Or else.

It hasn't happened, and, as the Norris case illustrates, it's unlikely to happen, not as long as powerful men walk the earth. And as long as they do, we apparently can count on sex scandals, as if they were an occupational hazard for the powerful.

Which, in fact, they are, in the view of some psychologists who have studied men and sex. The very attributes that have gained men power - boldness, competitiveness, independence, the hunger to prove oneself - also characterize the sexual adventurer, which many of these public figures clearly were.

"There's so much to lose if you look at it in terms of a cost-benefit analysis," says Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and past president of the American Psychological Association. "It always amazed me that these people will do these kinds of things. But remember, many successful people have a strong streak of risk-taking, a boldness."

All these men, Farley says, display what he calls a "Type T" personality, with the "T" standing for "thrill-seeker." The trait, Farley says, can manifest itself positively or negatively, sometimes within the same person.

John Kennedy and Bill Clinton are two prime examples. Both have often been characterized as consummate risk-takers. That description works just as well whether discussing them as politicians or as philanderers.

Aside from questions of personality, power itself creates temptations, opportunities and traps that might not otherwise exist. People will always be attracted to those in power, either because of the magnetism of the person in power or because of the power itself.

Having power can also lead to self-deluding behavior, particularly when there aren't others around emboldened enough to speak the truth.

"Being a powerful person has the drawback of allowing oneself to entertain and grow some delusions about what's appropriate," says Ron Levant, dean of the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Delusions, he says, "about what you're allowed to do, what you're entitled to do, and what the consequences will or won't be when you do."

Levant, president-elect of the American Psychological Association, has written extensively on the psychology of men. Power, he says, not only can corrupt, but also intoxicate. Powerful men, he says, "often have this sense of entitlement and invulnerability, a Masters-of-the-Universe type of personality."

Levant is quick to state the obvious - not all powerful men become womanizers. For the most part, countervailing notions of fidelity and integrity keep most from sexual disaster. He also notes that powerful women tend not to be caught in sex scandals, because their socialization is different from that of men, particularly when it comes to promiscuity.

But, Farley believes, it just may be that not enough women have achieved positions of power for their sexual misbehaviors to surface. So it's possible that one day, powerful women will eventually prove to be every bit as reprehensible when it comes to illicit sex as powerful men.

Another step, perhaps, on the road to equality.

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