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With Petraeus and Broadwell, we have a different sort of sex scandal

We have yet another political sex scandal to lather over, in the liaison between now former CIA Director David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

So, in a sort of early holiday gift for those suffering from post-election outrageous story withdrawal, we have yet another political sex scandal to lather over, in the liaison between now former CIA Director General David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell. 

Mary Stanik
Mary Stanik

However, lest you think this scandal is like so many of the others we’ve knocked back like so many Cool Ranch Doritos (bad for you, but oh, so very tasty and easy to devour), take a second look before you snag another bite.

We are so very used to sex scandals involving very powerful men (Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods, etc.) and women who could hardly be called “powerful” in the same sense. A White House intern who was especially good at, well, delivering pizzas to Bill Clinton (Monica Lewinsky).  A videographer hired by John Edwards who lacked any real experience in making political videos (Rielle Hunter). To make matters worse for many of these women, a whole lot of people didn’t even think they were beauteous enough to be worth the risk to family, career and reputation that they posed for the men involved.

With Gen. Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, there is a rather different sort of situation. In Petraeus, we have a highly powerful man who also is considered highly intelligent and until the scandal broke, had been thought a paradigm of male virtue.  And a man who, at age 60, could  run a six-minute mile! But for Petraeus, unlike other powerful adulterers, payment for his actions came with near guillotine speed.  And the price was large. 

No wife standing next to him at a news conference

There was no tortured denial on his behalf, no saying, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” no waiting weeks or months for the muck to slide back to the swamp so he might save his job. No making his wife stand next to him at a news conference with pain-twisted features while he talked about his love for his family and his country.

And with Broadwell we have a woman who not only has enough of the “look” factor going for her, but also is a woman of some substance. This is a woman who has something (and maybe a lot of something) to lose as a result of her behavior. Even if she never had written a book before she penned her almost groupie-style biography of Petraeus, one cannot question the fact that Broadwell is a person of some accomplishment: West Point graduate, acknowledged fitness expert (who beat her husband at a pushup competition on national television, but don’t think about that right now), Harvard doctorate.

It’s conceivable that Broadwell could consent to pose for Playboy, or push jeans or pistachios, paths taken by other women caught messing about with famous men. But at this point, I cannot see her doing so. Not when she may face possible  criminal charges if the allegations that she sent threatening emails to another woman prove to be true. Not if she also faces being divorced by her husband and maybe even losing custody of her children. Not when it seems as if she may have wanted Petraeus and a career as a serious writer and military-matters source. It’s entirely possible she may have wanted to become a reporter for TMZ, but I can’t imagine she would have thought getting a Harvard Ph.D. and having an affair with the CIA’s chief to be the best, or easiest, way to get such a job.

Eventually, the muck will subside

I’ve no doubt that in time, Petraeus will write an autobiography that will bring him millions of dollars. Once this muck does subside, some great foundation or corporation is likely to want to take highly compensated advantage of his acknowledged leadership skills. But for now, he’s out of a really big job, he could be out of his marriage, and he also could be enmeshed in trouble as to what he knew or didn’t know about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

And maybe Broadwell will be fine in time, too. But right now, I’m not too sure about her future. She may be accomplished, but she doesn’t have the general’s résumé or prior heroic reputation, even if she has Michelle Obama arms and a Ph.D.

What’s really sad about the Petraeus-Broadwell affair is to see two people of substance act in ways that insult their intelligence, accomplishments, and character. 

And as such, this is not the sort of scandal that people should want to chow down like Cool Ranch Doritos.  This one is more like, well, a beautiful filet mignon that sat uncovered in a too-warm refrigerator for a week.

But it’s still an outrageous story. If you want, go ahead and eat up.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/15/2012 - 06:52 am.

    “They all seem to be sleeping with each other, sir” – Burn After Reading

    Paula Broadwell was not a victim of anything. She was a female embedded journalist in Afghanistan. She graduated West Point and been promoted to Lt Col in the reserves. Doesn’t look to me that she has been held back by gender. She actively was a participant in this affair. If it prevents women from receiving mentoring in the future, then women have their own sister to blame as much as they do a sexist establishment. Equality is just that–a woman in uniform has just as much responsibility to keep her pants zipped as a man. Ms. Broadwell failed. That is not a woman problem in the military, but poor judgment on her part.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/15/2012 - 08:10 am.

    While it may have only been about sex, it really does have major national security implications.

    First of all, the “honey trap” still exists in spying circles, and yes, there still are spies out there. This is exactly the form a very old intelligence strategy would take–both with Broadwell and Kelley.

    Second, even if there are no external intelligence agencies involved–consider the infighting that has been a notorious part of FBI/CIA rivalry.

    With the knowledge of the affair, consider the leverage the FBI would have have over the CIA director. Consider the leverage Eric Cantor would have over the CIA director. On and on. If such leverage would be exercized, what could they have the CIA director color, shade, slant, do, not do, expose, cover-up, neglect to pursue, pursue zealously?

    If I were a cynical person and viewed the happenings in DC with a cynical eye, I would wonder if that leverage was being exercized right away with respect to the Benghazi issue–attempting to promote a Cantor-type slant on the issue. And, perhaps Petraeus saw that he was hopelessly entrapped by his affair, and the only way out, to retain professional integrity, was to disclose and resign before the hearings. But hey, that would be too cynical…

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/15/2012 - 09:19 am.

      If you’re too cynical

      Then so am I. This is exactly the line of thinking I have on the subject. The hanky panky is secondary to the functional/political/national security implications. It was stupid, stupid, stupid on Petraeus’ part, and mostly just stupid on Broadwell’s part. It’s not just a job for Petraeus. It is for Broadwell.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/15/2012 - 10:54 am.

        And it would explain why Panetta was so quick to bring the Allen issue to the front–it breaks FBI leverage over the DOD.

        As a former CIA director, he may know something about FBI arm-twisting.

  3. Submitted by Barbara Gilbertson on 11/15/2012 - 01:36 pm.

    Broadwell, Brodkorb, whatever

    This is a really good article. I can’t even bring myself to snark about it. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and for the moment, there are two more-or-less equal blamees (though I believe it’s fair to say that Petraeus is the greater among equals) .

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/15/2012 - 02:32 pm.

    This is the sort of thing

    that before 1972 you never heard about because J. Edgar Hoover was on the case and he kept it all under wraps. For a price of course. Which is why he was probably the most powerful individual in the country following WWII.

  5. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 11/15/2012 - 02:38 pm.

    not filet mignon

    At least Cool Ranch Doritos taste good. This affair reminds me of one of those brightly dyed, sugar and salt-laden, impossible to chew without breaking a tooth snacks you see at the checkout counter of a gas station/convenience store. Just because the two involved are educated, powerful, physically fit, and stylish doesn’t make them any more than common tramps.

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