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Schwarzenegger and Shriver: When the stakes are high, wives can go to great lengths to deceive themselves (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
Schwarzenegger and Shriver: When the stakes are high, wives can go to great lengths to deceive themselves (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Margaret Wente

Marrying up and cheating down Add to ...

Forgive my prurient interest, but I can't help myself. The spectacular implosion of the Sperminator has stoked my curiosity. Why would a man who's married to a thoroughbred like Maria Shriver cheat on her with a plump Mexican housekeeper? Why would this man think he could keep his love child(ren) a secret? And how could Maria not have known?

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The sex antics of the rich and famous are often riveting, and sometimes even consequential. They are the modern version of morality plays. The downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with its shattering impact on European politics and on the smug assumptions of the French political-cultural-media elite, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimension (or, at the very least, the makings of a great novel). The adulterous adventures of Arnie are more the stuff of farce. But both tales raise uncomfortable questions about class and race, the bad behaviour of powerful men, and the good wives who choose to stand by them (until they don't).

Imagine the tête-à-tête between DSK and Anne Sinclair, his American-born wife, when she bailed him out of Rikers. She must have wanted to bash his brains out. They must have had one of those upper-class French-style marriages, in which both partners (or, at any rate, the husband) are free to conduct their sex lives as they want, so long as they don't embarrass the other. (I've noticed that this deal invariably works better for men.) But now, he has utterly humiliated her. If I were her, I'd have let him rot in jail for another few weeks.

Is it possible that these two women had no idea what kind of men they were married to? Of course they did. But when the stakes are high enough, you can go to astonishing lengths to deceive yourself. Both Maria Shriver and Anne Sinclair chose powerful and charismatic husbands. Both invested their own position and identity (and, in Ms. Sinclair's case, her fortune) in the marriage. Maria has four not-quite-adult kids. With that much at stake, denial becomes an extremely attractive option.

As for why Arnie chose the housekeeper to fool around with, let me guess. Because he could. There was a high convenience factor. I bet she didn't give him too much lip. And she was obviously discreet. If you're running for governor, that's a plus. Besides, if you have a high-powered, high-maintenance wife, a low-maintenance mistress might seem rather relaxing - especially when you don't even have to leave the house.

Both DSK and Arnie married for advantage. DSK married money, and Arnie married royalty. Maria Shriver's Kennedy connections conferred respectability on the former muscleman. Because she stood by him, he survived the (highly credible) allegations of hitting on unwilling women. That's why his betrayal is so slimy. She made him. In return, he fooled around in their own house (and even bed, according to the tabloid press). His two sons, one by Maria and one by the housekeeper, were born within weeks of each other. He took the kids on holidays together. How cute.

There's a world of difference between a consensual affair and an alleged assault on a hotel chambermaid. But both stories meet the disgust test. You can't help thinking of the bad old days, when the lord of the chateau (or the plantation) just assumed he was entitled to help himself to the dark-skinned woman in the kitchen. Consensual or not, these men were on power trips. In each case the man had unusual power, and the woman relatively none. As for the good wife in the parlour - all her options were rotten.

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