“Human at the End of the Day”: The One Thing We Already Knew about Petraeus

I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that the media is blood-hungry after the election tides have […]

Ethan Richardson / 11.16.12

I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that the media is blood-hungry after the election tides have pulled back, but it’s also certainly true that the blood-hunger has found its outlet in former CIA director David Petraeus, who resigned November 9th, citing the extramarital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell that was being investigated by the FBI. Everywhere in the media right now, it is a low-hanging fruit of the first degree: a highly decorated official, congressional wartime paranoia, offenses on the moral front–offenses by one of our utmost commanders against country, against God, against love.

I say it in that order for a reason. As the Atlantic points out in “The Wisdom of Paula Broadwell,” it does seem that this variety of trespass–the trespass against committed love–is one of the unforgivable sins in the American public eye. This isn’t to make a value-judgment on that tendency, nor is it to say that Petraeus is any less deserving of the public scrutiny. It is to say, though, that the collective cultural finger-wagging is not indicative of the collective cultural susceptibility for the same sins. In other words, this kind of media exposure allows just another escape channel for the self-justifying Ameri-pharisee. In fact, and as James Warren here seems to believe, we tend to revel–actually enjoy–watching a personal life capsize, and to the degree that it actually relates to our own areas of susceptibility, particularly in the leader-figures, we enjoy it all the more.

Leave it to Paula Broadwell to explain David Petraeus — and inadvertently underscore why the screechy response to their dalliance is so obtuse. “He’s human at the end of the day” is how she put it last January during a Chicago interview for her Petraeus homage, All In.

During a lengthy conversation on WTTW, the primary PBS affiliate in Chicago, Broadwell was asked about the impact of Petraeus on the U.S. military. She argued that it would be on the next generation of leaders influenced by what she tagged as his “soldier-scholar-athlete” model.

He had displayed what “a transformational leader he is,” she said, then pointedly adding this: “He’s not without fault obviously. He’s human at the end of the day.” And so he was, especially given how they were apparently in the middle of their affair as she spoke. It still raises the question as to why we’re so transfixed and titillated by their relationship and why the CIA chief had to quit.

“American exceptionalism is really a level of puritanical standards we know don’t apply to most people,” says an acerbic Colin Greer, a Scotsman and educator who runs the New York-based New World Foundation, which pursues a politically liberal agenda.

“Even in the Catholic Church, almost nobody meets the standards we put up when confronted with reality,” said Greer, an ideological counterpart to former Education Secretary William Bennett, who wrote “The Book of Virtues,” a set of moral tales from a distinctly conservative perspective.

It is interesting how we punish those prominent figures when such conduct goes public, even as we don’t seem to have much of a societal commitment to change such behavior. But ours remains a culture that often breeds greed, voyeurism, and jealousy of the achievements of others. And so when the mighty fall, many of us feel a certain pleasure amid our moralizing condescension; all the more so if they’re among the American ruling elite.

…[Broadwell and Petraeus] were rather inept, especially in sending what appear to be indiscreet and even taunting emails.

But so what? What does that tell us? Here’s underscoring the obvious: Relationships are big traps for humans. It can be terribly easy to turn our backs to the world and forget it’s there — and then do crazy things while we’re in the throes of various passions and self-delusions.

There’s a prominent and famous fellow who’s worked in high-profile positions in the administrations of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Back in the Clinton era, this married guy’s personal life was a mess, and he had the hots for a friend of mine.

I was working in Washington at the time and, trust me, he verged on obsessive, including grasping late-night phone calls. The disjuncture between his public image and what I learned about him through my friend was cavernous. It was, dare I say, a bit Petraeus-like.

I initially found it all pathetic and hypocritical, given his rather pristine image and important government role. But now, a smidgen wiser, I agree with Greer that we err in “believing that prestige, pedigree, and power make people different from the bell curve which describes the species on any measure you care to name.”

Broadwell at least got that right. One can stipulate that Patraeus was maladroit, as those nonchalant French might put it. But a truly accomplished public servant was also just human, which is why we should have cut him some slack and stop the finger-wagging.