The title of this saga probably should be “Why Do Smart People Do Obviously Dumb Things?”
Probably the best advice my father ever gave me was never to write anything you wouldn’t be comfortable seeing printed on the front page of your newspaper. It’s not a complicated rule and should be followed by everyone, especially those who dwell in high places with a long distance to fall.
That is the classic definition of tragedy and Gen. David Petraeus fits it almost perfectly having ended a glorious career in an inglorious fashion in the time it takes to read a few emails he never should have written in the first place. How incredible that the head of the CIA, where everything is so secret the person in the next office often hasn’t a clue what is going on two doors down, would trust his future to a device that is notoriously unsecure – the Internet.
Forget about the morality or lack of it involved here. Adultery is never a justifiable act and this is not meant to do so. It is not surprising, however, that a man of his stature under great pressure during long absences from home on the front lines of national defense would look for creature pleasures with a smart, vital, engaging, type-A personality 20 years his junior. Dumb? Certainly. But not rare. Have you not heard of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Kay Summersby?
That Petraeus’s part-time companion turned out to be a jealous and indiscreet handful is not unusual in these situations. Ask Bill Clinton.
What is shocking is that a normally cautious man who has spent a lifetime in sensitive positions would fail to recognize the danger of his actions or the pain it would cause others if discovered. Indeed it is amazing the woman, Paula Broadwell, his devoted biographer and also schooled in intelligence matters, would recklessly challenge by email another woman she perceived as a rival for the good general’s attention. The second woman read it as a threat and reported it. Hello, FBI, so long, general. The FBI discovered evidence of an affair in emails between Petraeus and Broadwell.
But, as we all know, sexual chemistry tops caution almost every time, even among those who know what’s at stake. Some reach heights that lead them to believe they are immune from the self-restraint any prudent person would follow. Others are just so caught up in the emotion, they are careless. Petraeus may have been a little of both.
If those close to Petraeus noticed the electricity between the general and Broadwell, which they reportedly did, they apparently failed to warn him, not unusual for subordinates when dealing with superiors at that exalted level. Who would feel comfortable enough to broach such a subject with a four-star eminence? In fact, the head of the FBI and the attorney general of the United States blinked several times before telling the national intelligence director and the president. Agents already had determined it was a matter not involving any breach or threat to national security.
Whether or not the president should have accepted Petraeus’s resignation is bound to be debated for some time. There had been friction between them over Afghanistan. Petraeus’s departure is a sizable loss to the government.
Once again, the Eisenhower-Summersby relationship comes to mind. Chief of Staff George C. Marshall reportedly rejected Eisenhower’s request for permission to divorce his wife and marry Summersby. The implication was clear. Summersby would no longer be in the picture nor would Eisenhower if the liaison continued. The relationship ended and the willowy Irish beauty who had been Ike’s driver walked away. She wrote about the true nature of their affair only after Eisenhower’s death and when she herself was dying. Eisenhower went on to the leadership role that helped end the war in Europe.
As a news executive, I spent more than a year visiting newspaper and television properties lecturing on libel, slander and other subjects, including Internet security. The message delivered repeatedly was don’t trust emails. My father’s advice came through loud and clear. What a hard lesson Petraeus has had to learn.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.