An officer and a gentleman
Published on -11/23/2012, 8:10 AM
Something very wrong has just gone down. It's played out so much like a soap opera, for those following the twists and turns of who sent whom a shirtless photo, but at its core, it is very simple. America has just lost the much-needed services of one of the most brilliant military leaders of our time because he had an affair with the woman who wrote his biography.
I don't mean to sound unsympathetic to his wife. Every marriage is different, and I don't pretend to know, but no one would want to go through this kind of public ritual. But that's between the two of them. As this should be.
I get the argument that you can't have our nation's highest ranking intelligence official subject to blackmail because of an extramarital affair, except for the fact that the same argument could be made for, let's see, presidents, senators, police chiefs, mayors, members of Congress.
Plus, the fact is that it's very easy to entirely eliminate the blackmail risk by simply making the information, or the reporting of it to authorities, public, or by announcing a temporary separation. In that case, it plays out as a pretty quick story because it is private -- and only public to the extent that it needs to be.
And afterward, the talented general goes back to working to make America and Americans safe in the world, to finding out what our enemies would do to us before they can do it, and to stopping them.
Now, I'm sure if someone had said to him with the kind of certainty that doesn't exist that this affair would end his career, no offense to the other woman, but does anyone think he wouldn't have walked away?
Of course, he didn't ask himself that question. Why would anyone think that should be enough to cost you your job? He's not running a military division in which she serves.
He's the head of the CIA. She's a reservist writer. Shocking.
I once asked the late and legendary political consultant Bob Squier what percentage of his clients (some of the top Democratic politicians in the country) had been "unfaithful" to their wives in the year leading up to an election, and he just laughed.
"More than 80?" I said.
He kept laughing.
People in a business where they hear the sound of applause daily and learn to call themselves "we" have it far too easy for their own good in this respect.
Temptation is everywhere because power is a great aphrodisiac, enough to easily make up for being older or balder, which no one suggests was a problem here. It makes sense that facing constant temptation increases dramatically the risk that you'll be tempted.
Here's my view: I don't care if Gen. Petraeus had an affair. I might pick up People in the grocery line to flip through pictures, but my interest kind of ends there.
He didn't have an affair with me or with anyone I know, so I'm back to what he has done for me. And that is quite a bit, actually.
I'm sure I don't have any idea as to the best parts, the parts where the greatest success is that nothing happens and you don't have a press conference. I don't know how many of those kinds of challenges we face, but my guess is a lot, and having the general as the head of the CIA, like having him lead our troops on the ground, is leading with our best.
As far as I can tell, at least at this stage, the general has been a gentleman: not fighting or finger-pointing or blaming.
He is accepting the consequences of his conduct, disproportionate though they may be.
The general is a big-time loser here, but so are the rest of us. We have benefited from his service and won't anymore because of something that is between his wife and him, something that is no reason for us to lose him.
Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science professor at USC.