I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent part of last weekend keeping track of the David Petraeus scandal, the lurid mix of soap opera, whodunit, and political wrangling that cost the CIA director his job and likely his future in government.
It’s a shocking story that has come with a lot of media hand-wringing, including some reasonable questions about whether the press is too deferential toward the national security apparatus.
But the Petraeus reaction seems less about policy than it does about personality, the shock that someone so broadly respected would turn out to be like so many other powerful figures — smart and savvy in one realm, flawed and stupid in another. Steamy, traceable e-mails back and forth with the biographer? This is the guy we’ve trusted as a national security genius?
Yes, yes, they’re two different things — though whether or not an affair should have felled Petraeus’s career is really beside the point. In America, sex scandals matter, and Petraeus knowingly took a risk when he chose to have an affair.
The bigger question is why it took a sex scandal to get the nation to treat Petraeus as a human being.
In fact, when it comes to public figures, media coverage tends to swing between two conflicting narratives. On one hand, there’s the “let’s find out what’s wrong with the guy” school: a watchdog mentality, abetted by opposition research, that largely afflicts people running for office.
But we have a parallel tendency toward hero worship, an inclination — particularly when it comes to people who take admirable risks with their lives — to pick someone generally good and paint him as virtuous beyond compare.
Petraeus took full advantage of this state of affairs. Among his many skills, it seemed, was how to earn journalists’ admiration, by making himself accessible, answering follow-up questions, and bolstering certain facets of his image. In a small but telling example, he apparently routinely conducted interviews — with Broadwell and other journalists — during workouts.
Now, reporters sometimes have to make accommodations to gain access to busy public figures; I’ve done the long chat in the car ride between campaign events. But holding court in the act of exercise — beyond the issue of sheer logistics — is also an act of power. Behold, the aging general, still a physical specimen, stronger than you!
Even by those standards, it seems, Paula Broadwell’s Petraeus biography, “All In,” was extreme in its over-praise. In an interview with Broadwell on “The Daily Show” last January, Jon Stewart joked that “the real controversy here is: ‘Is he awesome, or incredibly awesome?’ ”
But even Stewart, whose show is usually so skeptical of media presentations, seemed to buy into the book’s central premise of total awesomeness. “It’s hard,” he said, “not to imagine someone in this position running for president.”
At the time, Broadwell said he wouldn’t — perhaps because she knew that, in the political arena, Petraeus’ big liability (and hers) would have come out. But even without a scandal, Petraeus would have found it hard to enter politics. The shift between public and political life — between hero-worship and extreme skepticism — can be a rude awakening, especially for someone as cloistered and controlled as a general.
In 2004, I was present for the brief days of General Wesley Clark’s presidential campaign. Here was another guy who had bought himself a stellar public image by virtue of charm, smarts, and the willingness to grant media access. He was so popular that fans started a “Draft Clark” movement, which likely convinced some of his financial backers that he could make a credible run.
But while he was never marred with a personal scandal, Clark was largely felled by the strictures of the political cycle, the questions that demanded answering, the questioners who wouldn’t relent. You could say the process was unfair, but to me, it showed one value of our sometimes maligned political process. Given the constant pressures of the presidency, it’s reasonable to ask contenders to at least go through the mild-in-retrospect wringer of a political campaign.
Maybe we should make all public figures go through a similar gantlet: the tough questions, in fair settings, without the hero-worship, no matter who the subject happens to be. Perhaps we’d get higher standards that way — or, at least, less shock when our high standards aren’t met.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.