Much more is at stake: national security, the CIA’s future, even the possibility of congressional hearings.
Yet, the fact that a man as high profile as Petraeus — four-star general, U.S. commander in Iraq, mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate or president of Princeton — has brought out those who can’t help but gawk at the tawdry, bedsheet humor that comes with the uncovering of an affair.
Sunday, writer Michael Wines used this opening paragraph in his political memo in the New York Times about the unseemly Petreaus matter:
“Alexander Hamilton, Warren Harding, F.D.R., Ike, L.B.J., Representatives Mark Souder, Chris Lee and Anthony Weiner, Senators Gary Hart, John Ensign and David Vitter. Maybe a first lady, Grace Coolidge. And now, David Petraeus.”
Wines’ point is that the now-resigned CIA director is hardly the first politician or high-ranking official in Washington to let passion get the best of them. Not an excuse, just a fact. (Wines also mentioned John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Nelson Rockefeller.) From the nation’s beginnings, America’s leaders have proven to be just as fallible as the citizens they lead.
Problem is, America’s leaders are held to a higher standard — a standard that must be grounded in trust and accountability. Anything less can undermine a politician’s career, a leader’s effectiveness and a nation’s belief in those at the top. That this time it was a man of seemingly impeccable character and credentials make the situation more shocking.
Of all the scandalous elements of Petraeus’ story, the most bewildering is that a man of his intelligence — a 37-year Army veteran and West Point graduate who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton — obviously believed his affair with his biographer, fellow West Point graduate Paula Broadwell, wouldn’t become public knowledge.
The Internet age overpowered that belief. A trail of emails between Petreaus, Broadwell and another woman (whom Petraeus was not involved romantically with) unraveled the general’s story. Records left behind on social media (Facebook, Twitter) and electronic communication (email, text messages) make virtually any secret too easy to find — especially when it’s the FBI doing the investigating.
Thus far, all indications are that no classified information or high-level CIA details were compromised by the Petraeus affair. This seems a classic, though highly regrettable, case of a man and woman (who are married, though not to each other) making foolish decisions that affect their personal and professional lives.
Petraeus’ four decades of military legacy have been joined by a tainted chapter that documents his CIA downfall. And Washington, embarrassed again, has to withstand the fallout that comes whenever one of its most trustworthy leaders proves all too human.