Petraeus Fever Paralyzes Washington as the Media Pounce on Sex Scandal

Journalists are feasting on the sex scandal. Howard Kurtz on the irresistible lure of tawdry affairs.

There’s no escaping Petraeus madness.

Pick up the paper, turn on the tube, crack open the laptop, stop at any Starbucks, and the chatter is all about Dave and Paula and John and Jill.

The news that Petraeus’s paramour is hiding out here in the nation’s capital, at her brother’s house, prompted this breaking-news tweet from Politico’s Byron Tau: “After an hour in the cold, I can report that Paula Broadwell eats food and wears sweaters.” But it did produce a through-the-window photo that replaced the sleeveless-blouse pictures of Broadwell from her Daily Show appearance plugging her Petraeus-walks-on-water book.

Forget the fiscal cliff. Inside the Beltway, at least, we are all climbing Petraeus Mountain. There is no other topic. Every reporter, columnist, commentator, and blogger is finding an angle. Every conversation circles back to a scandalous tidbit: Jill Kelley and Gen. John Allen exchanged 30,000 emails! (Um, when did he have time to run the war in Afghanistan?) Broadwell called Kelley a “seductress” in those harassing e-mails that led Kelley to complain to the FBI. And what’s with that agent sending shirtless photos? Some of the details turned out to be overhyped—OK, maybe there weren’t 30,000 emails—but why let the details get in the way of a good wallow?

Even Barack Obama’s first postelection news conference began with the obsession du jour: So, prez, what do you think of the Petraeus affair?

There is an arc to the political sex scandal, beginning with the heady rush that comes with catching some highly placed public figure failing to keep his zipper zipped (they are, of course, usually men). Then we dig up everything we can on the mistresses (Monica Lewinsky, Rielle Hunter, Callista Bisek, Ginger White, Eliot Spitzer’s call girl, Mark Foley’s IM pals, Mark Sanford’s Argentine soulmate.) Next the country becomes acquainted with the peripheral figures: Linda Tripp, Anthony Weiner’s Twitter friends, Jill Kelley’s twin sister (how did she get Petraeus and Allen to write letters on her behalf in a custody battle?). Finally the story begins to fade, the press moves on to the next scandal, and the humiliated figure seeks rehabilitation as a global statesman or talk show host.

Of course, self-respect requires the media establishment to maintain that there are Very Serious Issues at stake. Did Petraeus allow national security to be compromised (as opposed to just getting some on the side)? Did Allen violate the military code of conduct (as opposed to engaging in a bit of long-distance flirtation)? And this one certainly has grave implications for protecting the nation: how can our top spymaster be dumb enough to engage in hot talk on Gmail? (This one is dressed up as a matter of online privacy or some such.)

Don’t neglect the sociological aspect: The New York Times and Washington Post both ran pieces Wednesday on the culture of Tampa, where Petraeus and Allen were based and where Kelley mingled at the top levels of the military command based there (her parties were “the talk of the town,” the Times informs us).

The defense writers are also weighing in. Slate’s Fred Kaplan says it’s not surprising that “supremely self-confident” and “arrogant” generals have a sense of superiority that extends to the sexual realm. Kaplan is also the author of the forthcoming book The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, which his publisher has just moved up by a month. On Foreign Policy’s website, veteran military reporter Thomas Ricks questions why Petraeus had to step down over an affair.

Speaking of affairs, media outlets, apparently gobsmacked that so many Americans are violating their marriage vows, are creating a whole new genre of service journalism:

Slate: “8 Signs You’re About to Cheat”

The Washington Post: “Cheaters, Done In By Digital”

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The Daily Beast: “7 Tips for a Top-Secret Affair

And if you watch VH1, you’ll find: “Couples Therapy Doctor Decodes the Petraeus Sex Scandal.”

See? We’re hip and happening. No boring lectures about morality. We’ll help you get away with it. Just click here!

If history is any guide, the Petraeus madness will fade when another story overtakes it. I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on that happening any time soon.