First, allow me to make an argument for adultery. Then we’ll run through the qualifiers.
David Petraeus had an affair. Like so many men, he was sloppy about it. He was stupid about it. And, increasingly, it sounds as though the woman he chose to frolic with is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. (Firing off jealous, Jersey Shore-style emails warning another woman to stop flashing her stuff in front of the married dude for whom you are already the Other Woman? Classy. And clever.)
But as the chattering classes gorge themselves on this scandal, a recurring theme keeps popping up. Yeah, Petraeus screwed up, but the guy has spent his life fighting the baddest of bad guys and getting shot at. Can’t we forgive him having a little on the side?
More often than not, it’s women that I’ve heard making this argument. (Perhaps men are more hesitant to voice such a view publicly.) Obviously, not all gals feel this way, and even many of those who do would be loath to admit it. But it’s not hard to grasp the gut-level reasoning at work here.
Unlike, say, some preening, gas-bagging politician who spends half his time expressing moral outrage at the personal shortcomings of his opponents (yes, I’m looking at you, Newt Gingrich), Petraeus is a genuine hero who does the jobs that most of us (and now at you, John Edwards) are too scared to even contemplate. The people willing to do these jobs, to take these risks, tend to be hard-core alpha males, with all of the testosterone poisoning and adrenaline addiction that comes with that. They are what we need them to be, even when that sometimes isn’t what we want them to be.
Am I suggesting we give Big Dogs carte blanche to run wild, bedding every pretty young thing who catches their eye? No. Officially condoning promiscuous behavior at any level of the military would lead to all sorts of unpleasant results.
Neither should we expect their wives to bear this sort of offense with gentle good humor. God knows military spouses have their own burdens to shoulder, and the entire system would swiftly break down if we suggested that they should just suck it up and passively accept that alpha males will be alpha males. If wronged wives like Mrs. Petraeus wants to kick the holy living crap out of their husbands, good for them.
But the rest of us might be better off minding our own business—most definitely including all those yapping dogs in Congress now clamoring to know why they weren’t told about this mess sooner, and when did the FBI know what it knows, and did the election affect the timing of any of this, and yip yip yippety yip.
I’m sorry, but you don’t need to be an intelligence expert to know that, if you want to keep an investigation confidential until the breadth, depth, and basic merit of certain allegations are established, the last people you should involve are loose-lipped, posturing, crassly political Hill folk. Staff and members tend to leak like cheesecloth, especially if there’s the slightest chance of scoring partisan points or making themselves look important in the process. So until investigators determined that the general had done something naughtier than shagging some four-star-struck chippy, Congress did not need to be told. That way lies madness.
Unless! (Remember how I said we’d eventually come to the qualifiers?) If the FBI ever discovers that national security was in any way compromised by Petraeus’s hot monkey sex with young Paula Broadwell, then the general’s private narcissism becomes very much Congress’s, the president’s, and the public’s business—and possibly a crime. At that point, heads need to roll.
Thus far, however, it looks as though the FBI probed the matter, quickly determined that national security was not at stake, and prepared to leave it at that. Which is where it well might have ended if not for that rogue FBI agent who himself may have had inappropriate designs on Jill Kelley, the woman Broadwell had been kinda cyberstalking. (Forget reality TV; this entire saga has the makings of a great telenovela.) Taken off the case because of his own issues—issues which reportedly also led him to send shirtless photos of himself to Ms. Kelley—the agent went running to Congress, and, well … madness.
In the end, there is no neat and clean answer to dramas like these. Even if he waited until he was out of uniform, Petraeus betrayed the code of honor he had championed so vigorously throughout his military career. He broke faith with his wife and put himself in a position to be distracted, compromised, perhaps even blackmailed. He is a cad, a heel, a pathetic cliché.
He is also a widely respected leader in a dark and dangerous field, in part because of all the ego and adrenaline and testosterone that ultimately brought him crashing down. The man is flawed, but he is also extraordinary.
And does anyone really feel safer now that he has gone?