Author: Henry Dickmeyer
Last Friday, David Petraeus resigned from his post as the Director of the CIA for an alleged extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. For the head of an agency that specializes in secrecy, it is ironic that he still could not keep something like this under wraps. But the old “if a tree falls in the forest” metaphysical inquiry can be directly applied to public sex scandals: if a highly regarded public official has an extramarital affair and it is not leaked, did it really happen? Well this time it did, driving his resignation and putting regard for our leaders in the ordinary American’s perspective: will Petraeus’s legacy be tarnished, and does it deserve to be?
Sex scandals affect us so strongly because we see acts of adultery, violence, and overt misdemeanor as a betrayal of the public trust. When an official acts immorally, we struggle to regain their trust because we understand that no matter who’s in the capitol building, or in Afghanistan, that sort of conduct is reprehensible, even if the action does not directly impede their duties.
The Petraeus tragedy is not his fall from the pedestal. Plenty of former politicians and elected officials have been forced to resign when a cloud hovered over their image. What is disturbing about the Petraeus sex scandal is its tameness compared to others in high standing positions who’ve been brought down by incriminating events.
Take former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned in June 2011 after he was caught using Twitter to send inappropriate pictures to a 21 year-old college student from Seattle. Or take the shining North Carolinian Democrat John Edwards, who helped conceive a baby girl out of wedlock with his mistress Rielle Hunter, which effectively ended his 2008 presidential campaign. One can also look at Idaho Republican Larry Craig in 2007, arrested and accused for soliciting sexual activity by male undercover police officer at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Petraeus’s vice now seems more tolerable compared to the misdemeanors of certain public figures over the past decade.
Perhaps the situation involving Petraeus should be assessed differently. After all, he was not a publicly elected official. His 38-year service to the military as a four-star general and compelling commander of Afghanistan troops gave him a certain degree of respect that West Point students admire and war hawk Congressmen heed. That respect was evident when President Obama selected him to be the next CIA director in the spring of 2011. The Senate approved the decision with a unanimous 94-0 vote. The accomplished figure was a visceral, idealistic draw for Broadwell, as she was essentially a young, female Petraeus: physically fit, a top student and intellectually commanding.
But Petraeus will escape unscathed in the long run. He’s built up a reputation with Washington, the media and the military. It comes as no surprise that Petraeus, a man known for opening himself up to journalists who have covered him over the years, would have an affair with a West Point admirer like Broadwell.
His actions will be forgiven similar to how Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky trial has slowly faded into the background over his last 15 years of political abstinence. But if the Petraeus downfall will teach us anything, it is that it should not take a strong knock to the gut for us to consider whether officials should be held to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.
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