The military hero and his scandal

I wasn’t going to write a word about it, this scandal involving David Petraeus, the military hero, sometimes described as “the most gifted military officer of his generation.” West Point (near the top of his class), combat assignments, Command and General Staff College (the very top of his class), a doctorate in foreign affairs from Princeton, a Georgetown University fellowship, a meteoric rise to four-star general with commands in Iraq and Afghanistan; then to civilian life and the top job at the C.I.A. And then…

I wasn’t inclined to write about it because my next deadline was days away when the scandal broke and, surely, someone somewhere would pose the question before I could.

How could anyone at the very top of the Central Intelligence Agency be so stupid as to communicate with his mistress via e-mail?

I suppose I can understand (without necessarily condoning) how any man, married or single, but especially a powerful and charismatic figure such as Petraeus, could succumb to the allure of an adoring, much younger woman. Happens all the time. In the public and private sectors. You know the names, the more recent ones, certainly; but in fact the first director of the C.I.A., the late Allen Dulles, was a legendary womanizer, at least in his younger days but perhaps even after he became America’s Spymaster in the days immediately following World War II. The potential for blackmail by a hostile foreign power, not to mention an unhappy paramour, was substantially lessened, history records, by Mrs. Dulles’s somewhat blasé attitude toward her husband’s dalliances, and by his own indifference to who knew what about the most personal aspect of his life. Quite a rake, that Dulles — the chuckle shared in the world’s capitols, ours included.

To repeat the question (to try to ensure that I get credit for it): How could anyone at the very top of the Central Intelligence Agency be so stupid as to communicate with his mistress via e-mail? E-mail?

My intent was to let the humor, or my stab at humor, end there. One quick quip, Leno-style, and drop it; there was no more room in the situation for humor. A distinguished career in service to country has come to an abrupt halt, and a reputation for probity and purpose tattered. A wife of almost 40 years with her own impressive record of public service has been publicly humiliated, as are two adult children (one of them also a combat-tested Army officer, the other a new bride); likewise, the husband and two children of the Other Woman — all stunned by a script that draws less from Shakespeare than a soap opera.

Add to that a national security establishment rattled, a White House reeling, a Congress infuriated, a global intelligence-diplomatic-military establishment unsettled, some Petraeus admirers disillusioned and some former Petraeus neighbors bewildered — and, no, there’s no more humor to be found.

Except perhaps there is — provided you believe it’s always better to laugh than cry. For now we have yet another military general involved, and more e-mails, and not the mistress, or at least Petraeus’s mistress, and maybe not anybody’s mistress, and …

… and why not, to get a sense of the quite serious nonsensicalness of it all, take this first paragraph from a story, early in the week, from the New York Times: “Gen. John R. Allen, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has become ensnared in the scandal over an extramarital affair acknowledged by David H. Petraeus, a former general. General Allen is being investigated for what a senior defense official said early Tuesday was ‘inappropriate communication’ with Jill Kelley, a woman in Tampa, Fla., who was seen by Mr. Petraeus’s lover as a rival for his attentions.”

Got it straight now?

But there’s more: the FBI agent who took complaints from the Tampa woman about threatening e-mails from the Charlotte woman who saw her as a rival was sending some e-mails of his own — beefcake shots of himself to the woman in Charlotte. No, I mean, the woman in Tampa. I think. So thinks, too, the Secretary of Defense, who was trying to process the latest developments while on a plane bound for the Far East, where he was to discuss with his counterparts such matters as diplomacy and security. And, possibly, e-mail.

Suddenly we’ve gone from soap opera to slapstick.

Congress should, must and will investigate. There may be more laughs. None of them will be funny.

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Steve Barnes, a native of Pine Bluff, is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.