A fallen general, scarlet letter journalism

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.

Fred Kaplan, a writer at Slate who I usually admire, indulges in this bit of tomfoolery.

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.

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62 Comments on “A fallen general, scarlet letter journalism”

  1. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    On big jobs like that, those things will happen.

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  2. Peter Hahn says:

    I think there was some issue with his gmail account. Its hard to believe that a consensual affair led to his resignation since he wasnt in the military anymore. A divorce maybe, but what business is it ours? Nevertheless – its all over the news and will be for a while. Sex sells newspapers and everything else.

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  3. Will Doolittle says:

    He was “keen to mentor” her. That deserves an A-plus from the euphemism professor.

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  4. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    The whole thing is to help cover for Benghazi. Sex by public officials doesn’t matter at all after Clinton. It’s just to throw attention away from Benghazi.

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  5. Walker says:

    See, this is why we need burkas. Otherwise, men are helpless victims of feminine wiles.

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  6. Marquil says:

    Is it not possible to assign blame evenly? It seems the operative adjective covering both individuals’ behavior is “reckless.” While you don’t want to leap to any conclusions in a case like this, by her own account, Ms. Broadwell initiated and pressed the relationship with General Petraeus. For what it’s worth, in interviews to promote her book she does not appear very retiring. On the contrary, she seems to enjoy the celebrity. He, on the other hand (and in most conceivable scenarios), just seems like a dumb putz. (Can I write that on NCPR?)

    While this may not be the case of Broadwell being 100% predator and Petraeus being 100% drone, the story as it unfolds seems closer to this side of the balance than the opposite.

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  7. tootightmike says:

    He’s a fine looking gentleman…fit, healthy, and very well connected. She’s well educated, very interesting, and quite good looking. They spent a lot of time together. This could only be a surprise to the American tabloid press.

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  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    If the affair was conducted while he was on active duty he was violating the military code. As the head of the CIA carrying on an affair or not owning up to it to the people who vet these sorts of positions makes him unqualified to hold the office.

    Other than that, who cares?

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  9. Marquil says:

    And shouldn’t this commentary be posted on the “All In” blog?

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  10. mervel says:

    Well I agree that it is very slanted indeed to paint her as the problem and him as the hapless victim, which often happens in these sorts of things.

    The guy was likely a life long cheater, according to what I have read this affair was an open secret, which means those around him did not find it shocking. The women was jealous of another potential mistress, the classic case, but it also means another mistress was very possible in her mind.

    But the bottom line is in the CIA you are looking at vulnerability to blackmail, not morality, so we will see if something was happening on that front and I suspect that there was, she was probably making threats and probably both of them broke the law from a national security standpoint.

    But yeah here we go again where it is somehow all of the women’s fault. I do feel sorry for all of the children involved though its sad for them.

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  11. mervel says:

    I have to be careful in these sorts of things, I never liked him, I never liked a war cheerleader it reminded me of Westmorland in Vietnam, so that may play into my feelings about the affair.

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  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    What I find interesting is that Petraeus married the daughter of the military academy commandant. Talk about strategic thinking! Sure fire way to move up the chain of command faster.

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  13. TomL says:

    I agree this kind of reporting, focused on the supposed character of the General’s paramour, is sexist and distasteful. However, the scandal does dredge up some very disturbing things about David Petraeus’s professional judgement. For example, this story makes a compelling case that the General got too rapped up in his own myth while in Afghanistan, and was distracted from the mission:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/former-aides-wonder-did-petraeus-stumble-in-unfamiliar-terrain/2012/11/11/881b650c-2c3a-11e2-a99d-5c4203af7b7a_story.html?wpmk=MK0000203 .

    Maybe its just me, but it sounds unethical and potentially dangerous to security that “Prominent members of conservative, Washington-based defense think tanks were given permanent office space at his headquarters and access to military aircraft to tour the battlefield. They provided advice to field commanders that sometimes conflicted with orders the commanders were getting from their immediate bosses.”

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  14. The Original Larry says:

    Nice job of keeping the scandal quiet until after the election, especially with a Benghazi angle possibly in play. Ms. Broadwell was treated poorly (Daily News headline over pictures of both: “War and Piece”) but that’s somewhat better than Petraeus’ current image as an indiscreet buffoon who was led around by the…..well, you get it. Sad that this revelation comes on the heels of lives lost because of an intelligence failure.

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  15. tootightmike says:

    The man’s judgement was probably just fine ….until all the media dogs started yapping around his ankles.

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  16. mervel says:

    Come on you have to be relatively prideful to think you need a “biographer” when you are still alive and still working in the job you are having your biography written about by the star glazed writer.

    I think Edwards was getting a “biography” on film about him also.

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  17. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Y’all seem to be missing the important part- this was all well known before election day, just like Benghazi. Every time Benghazi starts to get some national attention another distraction is trotted out. Benghazi is a crucial matter but the CIA director will serve as a scapegoat/distraction. Did you all miss that he was scheduled to testify on Benghazi this week? The=at Clinton was too but is going to be “unavailable” and out of the country? That the WH only released requested documents over the weekend when most of the Committee investigating it is out of town? Come on man, this is just a cover up of criminal activity.

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  18. Paul says:

    “And the best we can do is suggest that he’s a virtuous warrior and she’s a corrupting whore?”

    I would not use the term “whore” but maybe she sucked him in. It is possible you know. Brian maybe you are not giving her enough credit. She saw something she wanted and she went and got it. Good for her.

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  19. newt says:

    Per Larry and Ledbetter above, I am also reasonably certain that the 9/11 attacks and subsequent “termination with extreme prejudice” of Mr. bin Laden were also part of the liberal plot to distract us from Benghazi. The fact that these events took place several years BEFORE Benghazi only illustrates the extreme power and devious ruthlessness of Obama, Hillary, Rachel Madow, Chris Christie, NOAH, and the rest of the great left-wing conspiracy.

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  20. Mervel says:

    I doubt her children would be patting her on the back Paul for her accomplishment.

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  21. Mervel says:

    The same would go for the General’s children.

    But there is something going on here beyond adultery, that is obvious we just don’t know what yet.

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  22. erb says:

    I’m also wondering what the real story is. An adulterous affair that requires instant resignation? Seems a bit fishy. A lot of hints are being dropped; maybe the fog will clear at some point.

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  23. Pete Klein says:

    Petraeus suffered from the same problem many in the military have. They are away from home for long periods of time. Divorce is high in the military because “when you can’t be with the one you love, you love the one your with.”
    End of story. The only cover-up was the one Petraeus hoped for.

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  24. Paul says:

    Mervel, I doubt that they would either. But give her credit if credit is due. It isn’t only men who go after things they desire with a vengeance. That doesn’t make her a “whore” in my opinion. But maybe that is not how it went.

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  25. Mervel says:

    No, I agree, that word to me has always been a biased word in that we don’t have an equal word for males who cheat or who are sexually promiscuous, so she is a whore and he is still the General, it is a sexist double standard.

    I think it is unfortunate, but the bottom line this scandal is much deeper than simply adultery. It is likely that Petraus broke the law from a security standpoint or was being blackmailed, which is very very dangerous for a CIA director who holds the very lives of our overseas agents in his hands from even the smallest slip up.

    But we can’t defend adultery and adultery should be judged by society in the same way as stealing or lying or cheating on a test, it is always immoral.

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  26. Philip Williams says:

    My comments are made from the perspective of a retired JAG.

    This David and Paula affair ought to put a spotlight on flip side of military “sexual harassment”. This has commonly been viewed as “unwanted sexual advances”. In truth the advances are not unwanted at all, but are advantageous to one or both and turn sour later.

    Paula is an Army reserve officer. Her promotions are very competitive and are made based on Officer Efficiency Reports and assignments completed. Would anyone like to compete for the next rank or assignment, against a four-star’s pet? Army reserve promotions are limited and those who do not get promoted are put out, without pensions, at various year markers.

    If military legal processes are pursued, likely Paula is charged with adultery and with dereliction for violating classified material protocol. David will not be charged but only because he has left active duty and is no longer subject to the UCMJ (uniform code of military justice).

    There is no question that a Navy ship commander would be relieved of command were he David or Paula; but a question of importance here is: is there any such a thing as a private sphere anymore? Can every public figure and military officer be held to a preacher’s standard?

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  27. Paul says:

    Mervel, I agree. There is probably more to his than the affair. When you are responsible for the security of the nation the bar is (and should be) very very high.

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  28. tootightmike says:

    Arlo, I think the Bengazi thing is as womped up as the Monica Lewinski scandal. You can rant all you want, and I don’t think you’re gonna catch my interest. Dozens of people get shot and blown up over there every day…most of them are innocent, most of them were only doing their job, and most of them pass below your radar. This story has “axe-to-grind” written all over it.

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  29. tootightmike says:

    I don’t know Paul….what about James bond? Sometimes he holds the security of the entire western world in his hands, and yet we allow him quite a bit of……..freedom.

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  30. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    TTMike, most of the innocents over there that get blown up every day aren’t US Ambassadors working on illegal deals and aren’t abandoned by the CIC and his staff when they get in the sh#t. It’s lots more important than Monica. It’s murder to cover a mess up. But you won’t consider the possibility I guess. Probably never thought Ron Browns death was incredibly convenient or that all those other people conveniently dying around the Clintons were anything strange either.

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  31. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Oh brother! Back with the Vince Foster stuff. And did you guys know that Obama was born in Kenya? He doesn’t have a birth certificate, you know.

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  32. Mike Ludovici says:

    It’s unfortunate that our leaders/gov.officials are human, and we feel the need to crucify them occasionally.
    You have to be a saint and it helps if you can also do a song and a dance.

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  33. Two Cents says:

    Didn’t his own soldiers nick-name him “Betrayus”.

    Wake me when she poses for Playboy.

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  34. The Original Larry says:

    I saw an Obama spokesperson on the news claiming the first the President knew of the Petraeus scandal was when he (Petraeus) resigned. The FBI knew about it five months ago. Just like Benghazi, either the President is covering up or, worse yet, he’s spectacularly uninformed and incompetent.

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  35. Mervel says:

    I don’t think it is covering up some massive conspiracy surrounding the screw up in Libya. I just think in these sorts of very very sensitive positions, you have to be pretty strict with what is going on in your personal life and how that impacts national security. But you know this is not new, look at Hoover for heaven’s sake, how much was he compromised and the country compromised through his secret relationships? I think it was pointed out above that in the military this is against the code of conduct but Petraeus was not in the military.

    Certainly the public always loves a good sex scandal, but they happen pretty regularly and I think adultery is always a personal failing and immoral, however we all fail in certain ways at certain times in our lives.

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  36. Paul says:

    Obama was born in Kenya? That could be a problem for him.

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  37. Paul says:

    Larry I don’t think the FBI is supposed to inform the administration if they are investigating a member of the administration? Don’t you think that might hamper the investigation?

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  38. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Actually, ever since the Watergate scandal it’s been illegal for the FBI to inform the White House of internal investigations of it or any of its cabinet members. These laws, procedures, requirements, etc. are a result of Nixon’s attempt to thwart the investigation into his administration. I’m not sure at what point the FBI can or is required to notify the White House, but there are legally required procedures on how such things are approached. I’m sure the specifics are available somewhere on line…..

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  39. Mayflower says:

    A comment from columnist Susan Milligan:

    “…gossiping about sex is an easier lift than dealing with real scandals involving an ill-conceived war, environmental irresponsibility and fiscal mismanagement.”

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  40. The Original Larry says:

    I was not aware of that Paul, but it is a poor leader who doesn’t know or find out, one way or another, what his people are up to. Someone is asleep at the wheel.

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  41. Paul says:

    Larry I agree but it has to be done under the rule of law. If the guy is a rogue leader there may be times where you don’t want him knowing things he has “found out one way or the other”. We have checks and balances for a reason. We have a president not a dictator.

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  42. The Original Larry says:

    I don’t disagree with you, Paul, I’m just saying……

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  43. tootightmike says:

    Hey Knuck. While we’re speculating wildly…you’ll like this one. I wonder if this Jill Kelley person is a Republican, and more to the point, I wonder if she’s a Republican “operative” and that this is all a sort of (half-baked) scheme to put an anchor around Obama’s neck. It’s not even completely out of the bag, and Arlo’s already on board. I think we could make something of this….

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  44. tootightmike says:

    And Clapton, It should be recognized that there really are still folks in this game that are left from the Watergate era. Their guy got busted, they’re still mad about it, and they’ve been plotting their revenge for a long, long time. The upper echelons of the Republican party is polluted with this ancient hatred, and it will last until they die off.

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  45. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Anybody notice that Benghazi is a mnemonic for Ben G. haz I ? “I” obviously means intel which is military speak for intelligence and “haz” is rapper talk for “has” but looks cooler because Z is a badass letter. Now, if only I can figure out who this Ben G. is… wait! Benjamin Netanyahu. Ben and G is obviously a reference to God because Israel is the place of God’s Chosen People. And the Terrorists hate Israel because they work for the Anti-Christ and We are Israel’s only true friend so obviously the Terrorists would want to attack us in Benghazi. Why didn’t Obama know about this; it’s so obvious!!??!! Obama must have wanted the Terrorists to attack us.

    But there is more. If you look at the letters in benghazi the A and Z are right next to each other but they are on each end of the alphabet. So if you drop them out then the G, H, and I would be in order just as they are in the alphabet!!!! In order that would be letters 7, 8, and 9. Add that up and you get 26 — exactly the same number as the letters in the alphabet. What is left? B, E, N. N is the 14th letter and E the 5th. 14 minus 5 is 9. Only one letter left and that is B which is 2. 9 + 2 = 11 … 9/11 get it!!

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  46. mervel says:

    I think it is a very good check and balance to make sure the FBI can conduct investigations on the President’s staff and Executive Branch appointments, which is what the CIA director is, without the knowledge of the President.

    We don’t elect a dictator, the President is not in charge of our government he is one branch of government and I think Nixon showed us the dangers of letting a President began to think that they are in charge of this country.

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  47. mervel says:

    What Paul said.

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  48. tootightmike says:

    Excellent work Knuck. I believe there’s a seat open at the CIA.

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  49. Two Cents says:

    i thought G always stood for original Gangsta-
    so ….

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  50. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    You guys really find it completely normal that this doesn’t come out till the days after the election, that Benghazi was virtually ignored by the media, that the revamped jobs numbers were held back till after the election etc? You don’t find it at all suspicious that the President claims he had absolutely no knowledge of his CIA Director being in a potentially compromised situation or that the FBI was tapping into private, personal email accounts sans warrant? You don’t find anything wrong with the press just glossing over an American Ambassador being killed and a Consulate being overrun? Are you the same guys that question every move a Republican president makes? Oh, I get it! It’s not shady when it’s your guy doing wrong, only when it’s their guy doing wrong. It’s not agenda driven reporting when the press is in the tank for your guy, only when the press doesn’t crucify the other guy. Okay, I got it now.

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