Sean O'Grady: A charismatic intellectual who is no stranger to scandal

Dominique Strauss-Kahn will be a loss. The world recovery is fragile, its financial system still weak, and debt is a problem almost everywhere. We needed his intellectual leadership. Observing him at the IMF and at Davos, Mr Strauss-Kahn seemed to me an impressive, even likeable figure. He was grown-up, sensible, sane, open, and shrewd: a man in control. All qualities, sadly, that seem to be glaringly absent from his private life.

There can be no excuses, and if the allegations are true, he should never hold public office again. But, all the same, this is a kind of tragedy. "DSK" was a man of formidable talents as well as fatal flaws. In Britain, it is impossible to imagine such a combination of gifts – and faults – getting anywhere near to the top. It is as if a professor at the London School of Economics had become mayor of his local town, then went on to become Chancellor, married three times – the latest bride being the female equivalent of Jeremy Paxman – led the IMF with distinction, and found himself on the brink of No 10. The British press, quite simply, would never have allowed it.

A rare thing, he is charismatic enough to be known simply by his initials – DSK, a faint echo of JFK, and with some of JFK's excessive appetites. In those proclivities he is also reminiscent of Bill Clinton, again a figure on the "modernising" wing of a leftist party and viewed with suspicion by some – but indispensable as an election-winning machine, and, for that impertinence, loathed by the right. Yet Mr Strauss-Kahn's liaisons are on a more dangerous scale than that of his contemporaries, even those of Silvio Berlusconi.

Within a year of taking charge of the IMF as managing director in November 2007, he found himself apologising for a consensual affair with a female colleague. Though he admitted that "the personal behaviour of the managing director sets an important tone for the institution", he remained adamant that his role should not be under question. "While this incident constituted an error in judgment on my part, for which I take full responsibility, I firmly believe that I have not abused my position," he wrote in an email to staff.

He promised to "uphold high standards" in future (with allegations of attempted rape in 2002 also still in his mind no doubt) and since then he had appeared to be keeping his personal life in check, despite being pictured clambering into a €100,000 Porsche last week.

His candour in discussing the credit crunch and international banking crisis in the recent Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job was indicative of the friendly and charismatic media profile he had strived to build in recent years – with one eye on French President Nicolas Sarkozy's job. But that is surely out of reach now.

Like the rise of those emerging economic superpowers, the fall of DSK arrived more suddenly than anyone expected.

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