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

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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.

Newt Gingrich indicated in an interview with Newsmax that Petraeus’ “mistake” should not end his career, and praised the general on “The Today Show”: “He’s a remarkable human being. This is a tragic end to a great career. … I hope he does have some future in some form of public service.”

Charles Krauthammer has contended that Petraeus’ testimony on Benghazi is “the only thing that makes the sex scandal relevant, otherwise it would be an exercise in sensationalism, and voyeurism, and nothing else.”

Televangelist Pat Robertson offered up a nonchalant justification of the affair, explaining it away as “a good-looking lady throwing herself at him” … and “he’s a man.” Added the mouthpiece for the religious right: “I don’t condone sexual immorality, but at the same time, I don’t think it should be necessarily a disqualification for somebody to head the CIA.”

“Gee,” Peter Mansoor, one of Petraeus’ top aides in Iraq, told CBS, “If we made adultery a disqualification for public office, I think about half of Washington would be out of a job so I think you could very well see David Petraeus back in Washington in a public position at some point.”

This lukewarm, boys-will-be-boys excuse mongering not only condones such behavior, it flies in the face of conservative sensibilities. This is not to suggest that Petraeus should be branded with a figurative scarlet letter or barred from ever holding public office again, or that conservatives should not mourn the loss of such a tremendous leader. Yet Petraeus’ extramarital affair is essentially a betrayal of classic, cherished conservative American values: the institution of the family, and the importance of fidelity and commitment.

As Doyle McManus noted in the Los Angeles Times, “Petraeus appears likely to go down in history as a beneficiary of what you might call the Bill Clinton rule: Adultery is no longer a disqualifier in American politics.” This normalizing of infidelity should be anathema to conservatives. It is corrosive of the family unit and of the institution of marriage — values which, given their decline in recent years, conservatives should be championing, not undermining.

Unless, of course, we are speaking of convenience conservatives, who jettison such values when they become troublesome.

In which case, we may be only a few steps away from the French propensity for winking at public figures’ infidelity. This is perhaps best embodied by Anne Sinclair, wife of the notorious Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who, when asked during an interview with L’Express if she suffered from her husband’s reputation as a seducer, blithely replied, “No, I’m rather proud of it! It’s important for a politician to seduce.”

Quelle scandale.

Or maybe not so much.

Stephanie D. Edelman is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and a current intern at a think tank in Washington, D.C.

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