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The David Petraeus affair: The petty indiscretions of great men

Take two four-star generals in heat. Add one sexy, unhinged younger woman. Mix in a shady socialite couple in Florida. Garnish with pictures of a shirtless FBI agent. The David Petraeus saga is served. The undoing of a military hero is now the most mouth-watering sex scandal in the United States since Monica Lewinsky flashed her thong in the White House.

Viewed at a distance -- or something approaching perspective -- the story reads as a middling Jackie Collins novel, rife with cliches and predictable plot turns. [See the 'Petraeus Pentagon of Love'] A powerful man had an extramarital affair with an ambitious, bright and good-looking woman, aka Paula Broadwell, and in doing so endangered his marriage, position, and reputation. So what's new?

David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell. Reuters.

Not very much, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni notes, including the oldest excuse for male adultery: "What else could explain his transgression? Why else would a man of such outward discipline and outsize achievement risk so much? The temptress must have been devious. The temptation must have been epic." Behind every straying man is a conniving siren luring him down the path of self-destruction. Hence the inevitable media narrative: Petraeus, hero, family man, scholar-soldier; Broadwell, "shameless self-promoting prom queen."

Bruni instead points the finger of blame right back at Petraeus:

It has to be more than mere coincidence that Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern; Newt Gingrich with a Congressional aide (now his wife); John Edwards with a woman who followed him around with a camera, creating hagiographic mini-documentaries about his presidential campaign; and Petraeus with a woman who made him the subject of a biography so worshipful that its main riddle, joked Jon Stewart, was whether Petraeus was “awesome or incredibly awesome.”

These mighty men didn’t just choose mistresses, by all appearances. They chose fonts of gushing reverence. That’s at least as deliberate and damnable as any signals the alleged temptresses put out.

Great men drunk on adulation and its attendant perks, including the fawning attention of pretty women. Noam Scheiber makes a similar point when he argues that Broadwell's "chief function was as a booster" to the ego of a man "long persuaded of his own brilliance and the righteousness of his cause."

Paula Broadwell wasn’t some gate-crasher who descended inexplicably on Petraeus-land. She was a flatterer in a community of flatterers, a networker among networkers, a credentialist embedded with the credential-obsessed. She was, in the end, precisely the kind of courtier you’d expect to find when the king has been in power too long.

Ok, so it's the man's fault, his turn to wear the scarlet letter, a giant V for vanity, perhaps.

But is that so great a crime? We are each flawed and prone to error, some greater than others. Success makes some of us addicted to flattery. Others still seek to bask in the warm glow of another's achievement. If Broadwell is indeed a "successful-person trophy collector who made no apologies for her ambitions," as Scheiber claims, it makes her no worse than the average social-climber, male or female.

Infidelity is a personal sin not a social crime -- unless, of course, Petraeus turns out to have breached intelligence in the throes of passion. The other general caught in this mess, John R. Allen, hasn't even done the deed, guilty of no more than copious email flirtations with Jill Kelley, a socialite of dubious repute. Amanda Marcotte writes on Slate.com:

…I'm more than a little unnerved by the way that state power is being brought down on the individuals in question for behaviors that are really none of our business, and in some cases, as with the investigation of Gen. John R. Allen and Jill Kelley, seemingly the result of nothing more than a prudish hostility to men and women having friendships outside of their marriages. (Yes, I realize there could be more to it, but I'm going on what we know now.) It's hard to feel sorry for Petraeus in light of his obvious lack of judgment, of course, but it's also appalling to see the government and the news media running with this story as if it's actually titillating, instead of just kind of sad… This isn't even a tragedy. This is a farce, and one with actors so pathetic that even Todd Solondz might not be interested in the movie rights.

A wrong has been committed but most likely not to the American people. The victims here are Holly Petraeus, Scott Broadwell, and the children, grandchildren et al. They have become collateral damage in a tawdry, pedestrian affair that has been turned into a media spectacle. The lesson, if any, is this: infidelity isn't sexy; it's more often just plain lame.

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