David Petraeus is sworn in as CIA director while his wife, Holly Knowlton Petraeus, holds the family bible on Sept. 6, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Should we care one whit about David Petraeus' sex life? Is an extramarital affair disqualifying? Should it be? Instead of drooling over Washington's latest scandal, maybe we can begin a debate about these important questions instead.
First thoughts: Instinctively, my answer is that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency has extraordinary powers and has access to virtually every deeply held secret the nation has. Also, the CIA has its own code of conduct. Affairs are not grounds for termination, or else a third of the National Clandestine Service would be out of a job, but they do become the currency of internal agency politics. (For the sake of this discussion, I'm assuming these affairs are with colleagues, and not foreign nationals or spies or journalists or whomever.) Still, when applying for a job at the CIA, if you admit to a recent affair, you'll be flagged. Your finances had better be in tip-top shape. A friend who applied to the agency last year was asked to re-apply again in a year because he had tried marijuana ONCE six months before he sent in his application. Many high-level jobs require so-called "Lifestyle Polygraphs," where every kink you have is explored and adjudicated.
We hold certain officials to a higher standard because there is an implied correlation between their personal rectitude and their official conduct. President Bill Clinton's affair did not lead to his resignation because, while his personality lent itself to promiscuity, it also contributed to his success as a president. BUT — as Clinton himself wrote, he had sex with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky, because he could. That was an artifact of power.
This IS different. It is, to me, less of an offense to the public good. I have a hard time feeling anything but total sympathy for a man, just a man, who succumbs to lower order temptations. As of this moment, the identity of his paramour is not known. If she is a trusted colleague with a security clearance, and if all other things were equal, I almost wish the president would have rejected his resignation. An affair with a foreign national, would, obviously, be grounds for great alarm. But I don't think that's the story here. Petraeus' job is different enough to warrant a different consideration. Maybe we can stretch the facts to fit a contrast between the two men, but perhaps it is true that life simply is not fair, and different people will be treated differently for doing the same thing.
Petraeus was as close to untouchable as anyone in the U.S. government, given his reputation for generalship and his savvy public relations strategy. He made many enemies along the way, most of them jealous colleagues who today are inappropriately celebrating his departure from sainthood. And it is true, perhaps, that journalists and politicians sanctified Petraeus and elevated him to a pedestal that was too high; perhaps he couldn't breathe in that thin air.
I do think that Americans are developing a broader tolerance for the personal indiscretions of public affairs. There's a ways to go, and we don't want to become like France or Italy, where affairs are almost prerequisites for power. But we should be able to look at individual cases individually, assuming the news somehow gets out, and make a judgment based on whether the person having the affair can faithfully execute his or her job.
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