Petraeus Scandal

In Petraeus Scandal, the Old ‘Blame the Woman’ Strategy

The media paint Paula Broadwell as a conniving femme fatale. Who somehow acted alone? By Kirsten Powers.

“The bitch set me up.”

Marion Barry said it outright; the army of Petraeus worshippers trying to exonerate their hero have merely implied that their great one’s fall was caused by a conniving woman.

Yesterday, Petraeus pal Brig. Gen. James Shelton took it to a new level, casting the 60-year-old general as his biographer’s helpless boy toy: “He was the innocent one when it came to relationships,” Shelton told the Daily Mail. As for the 20-years-younger Broadwell, he surmised: “She’s… a savvy woman. She’s not a kid. In a lot of ways, I think she knows more about the world than Dave—I’m talking about sex.”

Shelton is more than an officer, but he’s definitely no gentleman. It takes two to tango, except apparently in the alternate universe where the Petraeus fanboys reside.

The New York Post reported that in a phone call to them, “Shelton put the blame on fellow West Point graduate Broadwell… for the affair and speculated that Petraeus, whom he described as naive, fell for her charms …”

Why the Petraeus camp wants to keep this issue alive, is anybody’s guess. Personally, I could not care less about what happened between them, and I don’t think Petraeus should have resigned over what was a private, consensual affair. What does matter, however, is the blatant and seemingly unending sexist character assassination of Paula Broadwell.

Fred Kaplan got in early on the Broadwell as man-eater meme, writing at Slate: “In the process of courting [Petraeus] while writing [All In], she may have made herself irresistible.” He went on to brand her a “swooning siren” who apparently drove the general onto the rocks. Ruth Marcus warned in her column: “Beware the woman who goes on The Daily Show wearing a black-silk halter top and flaunting her toned triceps.” Yes, wherever was Broadwell’s burka? Strange, we’ve never heard Marcus complain about the inappropriateness of the first lady’s bare, toned arms.

And so it has gone. Guileless general meets bare-armed seductress. If you want the full roundup of the sickening sexism and smearing, Frank Bruni was on this case early.

There has been endless fretting by slobbering D.C. journos about what will happen to their saintly Petraeus—will he take a job at Princeton or become a talking head?—while Broadwell is written off as a has-been Hester Prynne for doing the exact same thing Petraeus did. Except, or course, she wasn’t the head of the CIA or in any government position, yet she has become almost the complete focus of the affair.

The Boston Globe ran a story quoting unnamed Harvard professors trashing Broadwell’s academic record. So brave behind the blind quotes. Foreign Policy's Daniel Drezner used this snotty, unprofessional, and unsourced snarking—which included calling Broadwell a “self-promoter” for the offense of going to office hours—to conclude that Broadwell, who he has never spoken to about this, would “flail about miserably” at academic life.

Watching all this from the sidelines have been Broadwell’s frustrated friends who uniformly describe her as a highly accomplished woman and devoted public servant who cares deeply about the military and her family.

Her friend Angie Morgan, who served in the Marine Corps and has written a book on women’s leadership in the military, told me: “When I started reading about her in the media, I was amazed the woman I knew was not being represented. She is not [the] femme fatale [being portrayed].” Morgan describes Broadwell as, “the poster child of what we want from our women warriors.” She says, “She is a very selfless person who made a mistake.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Morgan says, “Paula has been a huge policy advocate for expanding women’s role in the military, specifically regarding combat. We would both like to see the end of women’s restrictions. She is constantly mentoring women and connecting with women in the defense community.”

Tara Muller, who got to know Broadwell through the organization Women in International Security while enrolled in a Ph.D. program at MIT, echoed these sentiments. Muller described Broadwell as a highly accomplished superwoman who is particularly dedicated to helping other women in the military. Muller told me, “In the media coverage, people should take caution with the tone they are using to discredit every aspect of a person. It creates a revisionist history that undermines everything she has accomplished.”

Tommy Norman, a Vietnam War veteran who who has gotten to know Broadwell through her work at Charlotte Bridge Home, which offers assistance to wounded warriors, describes her as a tireless advocate for vets. “I’ve watched her passion and watched her commitment to helping veterans and respected it greatly,” he says. “She was always willing to help out on an individual case or go speak on the issues. She is a wonderful person. She is a very strong-willed, successful individual … it’s what you want your daughter to be doing. That’s the best of America right there.”

Broadwell, along with Petraeus, got caught up in the destructive sexual McCarthyism that has claimed the careers of many rising stars and leaders in our country for too long. She made a mistake that should be between she and her husband and nobody else. Here’s hoping she can wipe off the mud the media have hurled at her and get back to doing what she clearly loves: serving her country.