Monday, November 12, 2012

Excusing Petraeus

cross-posted from Dagblog

David Petraeus's downfall at the CIA, resigning after his marital infidelity was exposed, has gotten the kind of press coverage generally reserved for winning the Nobel Prize or becoming the first man on Mars. Story after story about his resignation rhapsodizes about the greatness of Petraeus, his military brilliance, his reputation for "probity and integrity." He is hailed as the model of a modern general, without a whiff of Gilbert & Sullivan irony in that phrase. Some people even single out the resignation itself as a sign of Petraeus's lofty sense of honor, as if why he was resigning had nothing to do with it. Of course, some of this is the standard journalistic fall-from-glory narrative, which needs to establish how high the subject was riding to demonstrate how far he's fallen. But it's peculiarly intense. Petraeus has always gotten idolatrous treatment from the media, and his resignation has become another opportunity to write the man valentines and give him lingering tongue-baths on the front page. What on earth did he need a mistress for?

Meanwhile, his extra-curricular lover gets blamed for seducing him. She "got his hooks" into him. He had a lapse in judgement, or simply "stumbled" in an unaccustomed situation. Virtually everyone agrees that Petraeus was weak and unable to resist, although everyone also agrees that they have no idea how this affair started. That no one knows any facts about whose idea the affair was or who started it is irrelevant, because this isn't about facts. An illicit relationship between a powerful man and less powerful woman is always treated as something that happens to the man and that the woman does.

Paula Broadwell has been hit with the two basic attacks used against every woman in her situation. 1) She is a crazed hussy. 2) It was her idea, and there was no way he could resist her. Never mind that these two lines of attack, which are almost always used in combination, tend to cancel each other out. (Shouldn't crazed hussies be easier to resist? Shouldn't any mature adult find lunatics much easier to turn down?) And while Broadwell has done legitimately reckless and foolish things, like sending the enraged e-mails that started the original investigation, the "crazed hussy" excuse only makes Petraeus's behavior worse. It demonstrates his lack of judgment. That he risked his career on a secret affair with an unreliable and ultimately untrustworthy partner is a sign of his own unreliable decision-making. So please, don't tell me any more about how smart he is. And the "couldn't resist her" excuse is a transparent falsehood. The affair could never have happened if David Petraeus did not want it to. The more powerful person can always resist the less powerful one, simply by using his power. It was not possible for Paula Broadwell to make any advances that David Petraeus did not allow her to make. There was nothing Broadwell could do unless Petraeus decided that she could do it.

If David Petraeus felt that Broadwell was getting too close to him, or that he was having trouble managing his sexual attraction to her, he could simply have closed off her access to him. It's that simple. When women get blamed for seducing powerful men, remember that the powerful man has to deliberately let that woman into a room with him in the first place. Monica Lewinsky and Rielle Hunter could not have gotten near Bill Clinton or John Edwards except that Clinton and Edwards deliberately decided to give those women access that almost everyone else was denied. This even holds true for men who aren't actually powerful, or who only have a little power inside their workplace. Being a college professor does not confer any power or influence. But over the years I've had two students make inappropriate romantic overtures toward me. Neither of those students has ever seen me one-on-one again. One has not been in the same room with me. And it was very easy for me to manage that. It is vastly easier for someone like Petraeus or Edwards or Clinton, surrounded by a constant press of followers and admirers jockeying for place near the great man, to let some obscure young woman (who, truthfully, doesn't have much reason to be there) get crowded out of his entourage. Petraeus didn't need an excuse to get rid of Broadwell or anybody else. Paula Broadwell was only around because Petraeus wanted her around. Anybody he stopped wanting around, anyone Petraeus did not actively invite into his presence, would simply be gone.

Why did he do it, reporters keep asking? Why did he have the hubris to think he could get away with it? But hubris is the point of such a relationship. It's obvious that Broadwell downright worships Petraeus, and her uncritical adoration has to be a strong part of her appeal. Petraeus got to have an affair with a person who saw none of his flaws and more of his virtues then he had, and he got to see himself through her eyes. It is the intoxicating pleasure of having a lover who has mistaken you for someone else, and indulges you in the same mistake. (My inappropriate students were clearly not attracted to the actual me, whom they do not really know, but to some English-professor fantasy that they had constructed around me. My spouse, on the other hand, not only sees my feet of clay but has to remind me twice a week about the clayey footprints I've left on the rug. That is just one of the many reasons I prefer her.) The great appeal of the younger mistress is not sex but vanity; they allow their older, more powerful lover to believe in an idealized fantasy version of himself. It isn't so much that hubris leads powerful men to chase younger women for sex. It's that such men have sex with younger women in order to get more and more hubris.

But Petraeus got more than the gratification of his vanity. He got payment for his favors: a doting, hero-worshiping quid pro quo of a biography. David Petraeus values publicity, and has long used it to advance his career. Sometimes he has even used publicity in an attempt to sway national policy in ways that he thought would benefit his career. And that is where the real moral rot lies here. I am not convinced that Petraeus's illicit sex life was necessarily a scandal in itself, or any threat to national security. I think the FBI investigation may be a legitimate scandal, not because the Intelligence Committees were not briefed but because other Congressmen were, and because no clear reason has been given for investigating anything. (If Broadwell is not being charged for sending the e-mail which began the investigation, why did the investigation begin at all?) But there is a real scandal here, and that scandal is the media itself.

Broadwell is spectacularly unethical as a journalist. There is no honesty in publishing a book about your lover without admitting he sleeps with you. No book published under those circumstances could be truthful. But Broadwell is the only the most glaringly literal example of the way the press has allowed Petraeus to play them. Broadwell's access to Petraeus's bed is not the problem with access journalism. The scandal is that so many other journalists have been willing to pay so much to Petraeus, and to others like him, in exchange for access to him. Granting journalists the privilege of covering him has bought Petraeus the right to control how he is covered. The result is propaganda that lionizes a man at the expense of the telling the truth about vital national concerns. Journalists give Petraeus credit for winning two wars that the United States has not won. That is exceptional and unhealthy. The fawning tone in news stories about Petraeus's resignation is not coverage of the scandal. It is a continuation of the scandal.

Let me spell it out: David Petraeus is a whore. He performed sexual favors in exchange for flattering media coverage. And Paula Broadwell was his john. She repaid Petraeus's sexual attentions and his protestations of love with glowing publicity. (Imagine Petraeus as an actress and Broadwell as a theater critic and the nature of their transaction becomes clear.) That Broadwell fell in love with her prostitute and lost herself in the follies of jealousy only makes her a sadder figure. The rest of the media, with whom David never actually went all the way but whom he has spent years intriguing and rebuffing and encouraging as it suited his purpose, are still willing to cover him any way he likes, just for the chance to get closer to him. David Petraeus may have fallen from grace for a moment, but the press still lusts after him and still woos him. They're just waiting for him to give them a chance.

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