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

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.

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.

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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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