Ah! A good old-fashioned sex scandal. With just a soupcon of political intrigue. Now here’s something we can all get behind, especially when the butthurt GOP tries to cool its post-election sphincters off on it like a cartoon cat on a block of ice. No soap. CIA Director, former Iraq/Afghanistan commander, and four-star horndog Gen. David Petraeus banging the objectivity out of his biographer is sleaze we can all roll around in, but sorry, it’s not Obama’s Watergate — it wasn’t a lie constructed to fake out Benghazi criticism or blackmail to get Dave to go along with the administration on Benghazi or even a coverup designed to get Obama back into the White House.
But juicy? Oh, mama. Especially when you invoke the spectre of some nefarious foreign enemy getting his hands on this secret and threatening to shake the Great Satan to its core by revealing that people in power over here like to fuck around. (If only we’d put them all in chadors.) Then there’s all the classified info his mistress had on her computer, thanks to the security clearance that came from also being his biographer. I mean, my God, The Petraeus Affair? Is that not a bestselling thriller on your Kindle already? Even the general’s name sounds like a Greek tragedy. (His father was a seaman named Sixtus Petraeus, which is fucking steampunk out the ass.)
So let the finger-pointing begin. There’s Petraeus himself, of course. But there’s also the catfight between two “military groupies” — Paula Broadwell, the biographer he was caught having an affair with, and Jill Kelley, the military social liaison who Paula thought was moving in on her man. But while the media’s twisted this story into every possible shape, trying to connect the dots between everything trivial from Gmail etiquette to Elmo to ’90s porn stars to the desperate housewives of Charlotte, NC, there is an important issue to be considered here, a pattern which pops up every time there’s a sex scandal in the hallowed halls of power, and which you rarely hear anyone talk about.
Petraeus was a four-star general, commander of the US Armed Forces, and the head of the CIA. That’s about as impressive a resume as you can get, unless you’re President. Oh, there was actually a lot of talk in ’08 about Dave running for President. Anyway, all those positions are staffed by married men, and have been, with few exceptions, for the last century. Yes, it’s sexist, but try and forget the “men” part for a minute, and focus on the “filing jointly” part. There’s been exactly one President who was unmarried, and he was James Buchanan, the last President born in the 18th century. This should tell you something about the importance our society places on marriage and children.
Not on happy marriages and/or children, mind you; they just have to exist. We’re not electing a bachelor, after all. He might screw around all the time or something. Or he might have The Gay. So we marry them off. Then, when they’re not happy in their marriages, well, too bad. Appearances are everything. Find me a good family man, dammit! I need someone reliable and dependable! What’s that? Mistress? Obviously a “military groupie” who “seduced” our David like Bathsheba. You never see men power-climbing through love and sex.
Except when you do.
David Petraeus met his wife Holly Knowlton on a blind date way back in 1974, when he was a cadet at West Point. He wasn’t even supposed to be on that date; a debutante from Dickinson College, Holly was stood up by a friend of the family, and when a call came in for an escort to a football game, he was the only cadet available. She was “appalled” at the idea of a blind date, and he didn’t know who Knowlton was — until the other cadets at the game noticed her, and politely hooted their approval. That’s when he learned she was the daughter of the West Point commander. The commander. The boss.
Her family’s military history was not a new one, either; the fighting Knowltons can be traced all the way back to the Civil War. Is it cynical to think that this son of a librarian and a sea captain married for power? Well, his own biographer — yep, the one he slept with — says in her biography that he “(found the) stature of Holly’s family intoxicating.” The class yearbook’s take on the relationship was also done with a winking eye: “A striver to the max, Dave was always ‘going for it,’ in sports, academics, leadership, and even his social life.” It’s not at all unusual to marry for power, and it was still a widespread practice back in ’74, especially in such a conservative and traditional establishment as the military. They were wed two months after he graduated.
Thirty-seven years of marriage and two children followed. Holly moved with Dave wherever his career took him: 23 times in those 37 years. For 5 1/2 years, while he handled Iraq, she barely saw him at all. And even before that, his duties kept him away from home. She testified against the rapid rate of redeployment before the Senate in June 2003, giving it a personal twist: “My husband has been deployed 16 of the last 24 months… Families will not be willing to go it alone forever, with little relief in sight.” Her husband was deployed four times.
People are complicated. We don’t know how David Petraeus truly felt about his wife when he married her, or when he began the relationship that led to his undoing. But even if you’re inclined to write infidelity off as part of the military’s “boys will be boys” attitude, consider that this wasn’t a one-night stand we’re talking about, but a sustained romantic relationship with a woman he’d met four years earlier. She was a presence in his life. Broadwell was also a West Point grad, one who’d completed two master’s degrees and was working on a PhD, and she found Petraeus’ stature intoxicating. She wanted him all to herself, knowing that the entwined institutions of military and marriage wouldn’t let her. Like the General, she wanted to level up. She was going for it.
The media insists on portraying “the other woman” as a shrill, paranoid, grubbing harpie; in this case, it focused on Broadwell’s attempt to harass Kelley, who supposedly had no designs on the General. That seems unlikely, since Kelley, a Tampa socialite, was already attempting to go for it by engaging in, among other things, thousands of flirty e-mails with Petraeus’ successor in the Afghan War command, Gen. John R. Allen. Then there’s high-ranking FBI agent and former Army Captain Frederick W. Humphries II, who Kelley first contacted about Broadwell’s threatening e-mails, uncovering the scandal in the first place; he sent her shirtless photos of himself, forcing the bureau to take him off the case. It might also be noted that Petraeus’ predecessor at the CIA, Porter Goss, was forced to resign after a weekly “poker game” was found to be a prostitute free-for-all. Then there are the ancient tales, unknown to all but the brass at the time, of Eisenhower, Gen. MacArthur, and Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan, who founded the organization that became the CIA.
All of the people mentioned above were/are married. None of them got divorced, They couldn’t, it’d look weird. It might create instability, or something. You gotta go back. Smarten up.
You might say that being able to head a family is an important step towards heading a battalion, or a bunch of spies, or a country. And it can be. But why do we, as a society, consider it necessary? What toll does it take on our leaders to marry for reasons other than love, even if love is also there? If love ends, why can’t marriages? Is the artifice of the nuclear family that much of a cultural signifier? Yeah, we all made jokes about the scandal, a perfect mix of power and sex, compounded by little touches no fiction writer would dare try to pass off as coincidental — the title of the biography in question being All In, ho ho. But I’d bet it’s not funny for Holly; one of her friends told reporters that “furious is an understatement” for how she feels. It’s her own fault, though. After all, she married a groupie.