Love and War

11.16.12

Tampa’s ‘Wisteria Lane’: Petraeus, Broadwell, Kelley—and a Culture of Climbing

It might seem strange that MacDill Air Force Base has become a cornerstone of the unfolding Petraeus scandal. But to Tampa locals, it’s always been known as party central, writes Winston Ross.

TAMPA—But for the drab taupe paint and flat maroon rooftops on nearly every building, the military base that has become the focus of fallout over Gen. David Petraeus’s resignation as director of the CIA last week could be mistaken for a sprawling tropical resort.

Higher-ranked officers at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa live in bayfront homes on stilts, with three-car garages and covered porches. There’s a beachside restaurant, SCUBA lessons, boat rentals, a skeet and trap range, golf course, a gleaming hospital, a top-of-the-line gym and a tidy tax-free commissary. A jogging path lined with recycled rubber snakes around the water’s edge, past C-37 and KC-135 aircraft parked in the lot, awaiting their next mission. The streets are wide and quiet, lined with palm trees dancing in the warm Florida breeze.

“It’s the nicest base I’ve ever seen,” says a private contractor with base access, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing his job with the government. “It blew me away, as far as what the taxpayers pay for.”

MacDill is an oasis at the end of a seedy stretch of Dale Mabry Drive, which is lined with strip clubs, liquor stores, and pawn shops. Homeless veterans ask for spare change outside the gates, and crime is rampant in the run-down neighborhoods within spitting distance of this opulent military mecca. If it has shocked America to learn of lavish parties and sex scandals that have ensnared some of the military’s top brass, it shouldn’t, say several people familiar with the culture of MacDill. The high-ranking officials here are celebrities in Tampa, big wigs, and socialite Jill Kelley is one of the many MacDill liaisons described by some as eager to curry favor with some of the most powerful men on the planet.

“It’s no different than they are in Washington, D.C.,” Aaron Fodiman, editor of Tampa Bay Magazine, told The Daily Beast. “These are some of the most important people in the world. They are warriors out there, protecting our country and leading the world, why shouldn’t they be admired, and why wouldn’t people want to be in their presence?”

That intoxicating draw to power may lie at the heart of the scandal that broke this week in South Florida in the wake of Petraeus’s resignation and admission that he had an affair. His paramour and biographer Paula Broadwell got herself caught by allegedly sending threatening emails to Kelley, who lives just outside the base in a million-dollar mansion on the city’s most coveted boulevard. Kelley, in turn, allegedly exchanged “flirtatious emails” with another general now embroiled in the scandal, John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Kelley flirted her way into the good graces of high-level officers all over MacDill, according to reporting in several media outlets. The same has been said of her twin sister, Natalie Khawam, who is engaged in a custody battle over her 4-year-old son.

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On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Tina Brown says "this whole thing has turned into the most wild, steamy, complex soap opera."

People in Tampa call Bayshore Boulevard—which extends from the base into downtown Tampa—as “Wisteria Lane,” referring to the street where the fictional “Desperate Housewives” live. “It’s well-known in social circles that all the big wigs do a lot of partying,” said Jack Belich, a private investigator in nearby St. Petersburg. “That’s just part of the way they operate over there, and Tampa has always had these social gadflies and liaisons.”

 “We go to parties every night,” Fodiman said, and Kelley as a “charming, lovely, vivacious” host is not a unique figure. “There are hundreds like that around here.”

While some have described Kelley as an aggressive social climber, Fodiman says she’s just like anyone else who “likes to rub shoulders with people they admire.”

Attempts to reach Kelley and her sister for comment were unsuccessful.

“It’s well-known in social circles that all the big wigs do a lot of partying.”

If the MacDill community kept to itself, though, it didn’t keep community members like Kelley off of the base. She was one of about 800 members of Friends of MacDill allowed daytime access to the base without an escort. Timm Sweeney, a fellow Friends member who runs an international marketing and research firm in Tampa, told The Daily Beast that the idea is to involve the community in the base’s affairs, and that most of those who participate are volunteer-minded, not social climbers.

“The vast majority are motivated by noble motives, rather than financial or self-aggrandizing,” Sweeney said. “People don’t just get into it because it’s a way to make money or get their name in the paper.”

That said, Tampa’s high-ranking military officers are certainly the type people like Kelley “want to glom onto,” Sweeney said. “MacDill folks are the closest thing Tampa comes to having real celebrities. The Kelleys are clearly the exception to the rule. I just think it was a way for them to become socially prominent in the community.”