GENERAL DAVID Petraeus seduced the press long before he seduced Paula Broadwell.
And perhaps not coincidentally, it was Broadwell who seduced Petraeus, according to how the media frame the story. That preferred narrative is a sign of deep mourning over the passing of Petraeus from fawned-over military genius to disgraced ex-CIA director.
As they dish the latest Petraeus dirt, TV anchors and commentators shake their heads sadly over the affair that brought down the man who always answered their e-mail.
“And I just have to ask why do we have to lose him over this? That actually makes no sense,” declared Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. She also called his resignation “mysterious” and “strange.”
Ever since the scandal broke, those courted by Petraeus are now bemoaning his fate. As media critic Howard Kurtz pointed out, when Andrea Mitchell broke the story on MSNBC, she began by informing viewers she took no pleasure in the details.
Since then, various commentators have plaintively asked why this affair is different from the one between Ike and his World War II driver, Kay Somersby. What about JFK? And didn’t President Obama just win reelection by campaigning alongside a very popular ex-philanderer-in-chief?
Well, just like your mother used to tell you: Just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t make it right. And if you’re caught doing something wrong, there are consequences.
What Petraeus failed to grasp is that in 2012, it’s a lot easier to get caught, especially if you’re communicating with your lover via Gmail.
Perhaps the Beltway cocoon he constructed blinded him to risks that the average adulterer takes for granted. In Washington, Petraeus was a different breed of general, and not just because of his PhD from Princeton. Unlike other military leaders, Petraeus didn’t shut out the press; he worked it and was rewarded with an adoring audience of media insiders.
The press appreciates access, and the depth of its gratitude is apparent in the reluctance to hold Petraeus to the same standards he imposed on subordinates under his command. He gets a pass, while Broadwell is cast as the West Point-educated temptress, whose tight clothes and abs would be hard for any man to resist — and especially hard for a man as much in need of stress reduction as Petraeus.
Much of the post-scandal spin tends to categorize the Petraeus resignation as utterly unnecessary. Some are questioning the motives behind the FBI investigation that led to the resignation and fretting about the invasion of Petraeus’s privacy. On the right, there’s a push to connect the Petraeus resignation to alleged White House efforts to cover up what happened during the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
The conspiracy theories really don’t add up, especially after Petraeus agreed to testify on Benghazi. As for those who blame his resignation on the public’s puritanical streak — or on the media’s low-rent obsession with sex — the sex between Petraeus and Broadwell is almost incidental to the professional risk created by their relationship.
For a CIA director, judgment ought to matter, and his overall lack of judgment is more than enough reason for his resignation. As Roger Simon put it in Politico, “Petraeus should have resigned because if he were any more dimwitted, you would have to water him.”
CIA operations rely on secrecy and discretion. Sending sexually explicit messages through a shared Gmail account is a sign of something other than that.
And even though Obama and others say national security was not breached by the Petraeus-Broadwell affair, the entire story of the general and his biographer is still not known.
Did Broadwell acquire confidential or classified documents through her relationship with Petraeus? Did Petraeus gave false or misleading statements during national security background checks?
The official story is that their affair did not begin until after Petraeus took over as CIA director. But is that truth, or is it spin to protect them from military rules regarding adultery if they had an intimate relationship while he was commander in Afghanistan and she was researching her book? Uncovering the truth about the timeline of their affair is not a quest to prosecute them; it’s a matter of debunking mythology.
Petraeus was never a god. He was always a man. And it’s best for everyone, including the press, to hold him to the same standards as every other sinner.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at joan_vennochi.