I’ve been absolutely creeped out the last seventy-two hours by the ridiculous, 19th-century tone of the reporting about the scandal that brought down former General David Petraeus, who was serving as CIA director until he abruptly resigned last week.
A mystifying amount of the reporting has been leveled at the question of whether Petraeus’s purported mistress, Paula Broadwell, was a temptress, a seductress, a siren, or an outright harlot. (Those appear to be our options.)
“The battle over the reputation of Paula Broadwell, who had an affair with General David Petraeus, might as well be taking place on some fifteen-year-old’s Facebook page,” Slate magazine reported, before indulging in much the same gossip through an entire article.
At the same time, a huge amount of ink is being spilled over the mysterious, mystifying, astonishing fact that a powerful man serving his country in the emotional crucible of wartime, while surrounded by admirers — had a sexual affair.
I know, right? Shocking.
The key to this initial attraction was probably not sexual but rather biographical. Broadwell had once been a West Point cadet, like Petraeus. She’d had training as a parachutist, as Petraeus had in his youth.*
She was obsessed with physical fitness, especially running, as was Petraeus. In short, regardless of gender, Broadwell was exactly the sort of aspiring officer-intellectual that Petraeus was keen to mentor.
A report in the Washington Post, meanwhile, spills a lot of ink over the question of Broadwell’s attire, referencing her “usually tight shirts and pants” and suggesting that she was “seemingly immune to the notion of modesty.”
The woman in the affair is portrayed as a corrupting influence who “appeared willing to take full advantage” of Petraeus’s trust, while the general simply “let his guard down.”
So let me get this straight. Petraeus, one of the most powerful men on the planet, invites a woman to accompany him all over the globe — inviting her on his private plane, allowing her unprecedented access.
He then apparently has consensual (albeit adulterous) sex with said woman. And the best we can do is suggest that he’s a virtuous warrior and she’s a corrupting whore?
The man who led America’s war-fighting effort in the Near East and chiefed our most important espionage agency was in fact a vulnerable naif, who couldn’t resist the charms of a wily admirer?
It is, not to put too fine a point on it adolescent, sexist and puerile.
There are, of course, some legitimate questions to be asked here. Did Petraeus or his mistress(es) violate any laws or betray any national security rules?
Did he lie to the oversight panels that are charged with making sure that the nation’s top security officials aren’t vulnerable to blackmail and other skulduggery?
What’s not legitimate is to suggest that this is a tale out of the Old Testament, in which a virtuous and principled man was brought low by a woman of ill-repute.