The Petraeus-Broadwell affair: the real scandal is the lack of outrage

Over the past few weeks, a number of blasé headlines on the Petraeus-Broadwell affair have shrugged off the general’s marital infidelity. First it was He Slept with Her. Who Cares?, and Petraeus’ Affair was No ‘Scandal’; then, A Good General is a Terrible Thing to Waste; Petraeus-Broadwell Brouhaha Ludicrously Overblown, followed by David Petraeus Sex Scandal a ‘Blip’ on His Record, General’s Former Iraq Aide Says, and, finally, the unequivocal Bring Back Petraeus, in which Slate’s Emily Yoffe pronounced:

“I have a great idea whom Barack Obama should nominate as his next CIA director: Gen. David Petraeus. With that simple announcement, Obama could strike a blow for civil liberties and against the silly and destructive sexual Puritanism that has taken down so many public figures. Since Petraeus’ departure both Democrats and Republicans have been mourning the loss of a public servant of extraordinary ability.”

The rhetoric that has emerged indicates that it’s really no big deal that the general had an affair, and, in any event, the American people should forgive him.

Why? Many have opined that the loss of Petraeus’ extraordinary contributions to the nation trumps his personal conduct. Others seek to re-allocate the blame: we can fault the CIA, whose standards regarding extramarital affairs are “artifacts of the Cold War era and the social and political mores of that time” (John Prados, The Washington Post). We can claim that “when a lonely late-middle-aged married man with a stressful job falls into bed (or under the desk) with an attractive and adoring younger woman, it’s not excusable, perhaps, but it’s certainly understandable — and really none of the country’s business” (Rosa Brooks, Foreign Policy). Or, like Richard Cohen, we can rail against American society’s antiquated Puritanism:

“This thing with sex, this American obsession and its concurrent hypocrisy, has gone far enough. We went through a disgraceful attempt at a presidential coup with Bill Clinton, who was accused of lying about sex — imagine! — but survived to become a widely admired elder statesmen. We have seen members of Congress destroyed by personal peccadilloes that had nothing to do with their public responsibilities.”

Better yet, we can let the general off the hook by deriding the physical appearance of his devoted wife of 38 years, described in a USA Today article as “dowdy Holly Petraeus,” who is “shorter, grayer, broader and way less va-va-voom than the busty other women in this confounding and confusing tale,” and by blogger Christelyn Karazin as “like a 50-something Peppermint Patty. … Holly, if she so chose, could easily improve herself in the looks department. A little hair dye, a date with a gal at the MAC makeup counter, a gym membership and a girdle can do wonders.”

Such rationalizations vindicate General Petraeus, recasting him in the role of a victim — the most coveted status anyone can attain in our society — who cannot really be held accountable for a moral lapse because he is merely a hapless pawn who has fallen prey to circumstances beyond his control. One expects this sort of spin from the left, but what is truly shocking is the relative lack of outrage from conservatives, many of whom have joined liberals in trivializing the sex scandal.