It was in the middle of a breaking news story and MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell sounded like she was going to cry. It had to do with CIA Director David Petraeus. She was ticking off his accomplishments one by one, the words “personal tragedy” ringing forebodingly like church bells over the satellite radio airwaves.
For the love of Mike, was he in a coma? Dead? I needed to know. Something bad had certainly happened to David Petraeus, but it took a few more painful moments of this boilerplate obituary and Mitchell’s palpable grief to figure it out: the once “King David” had done something bad — an extra-marital affair! — for which he apparently took responsibility, and immediately resigned his post.
First thought: Oh, snap! The Teflon general/CIA director gets out of another assignment just when it looks like the scheisse is about to hit the fan.
Second thought: The scheisse has already hit — splattering across the folds of the fine green drapery from which a small figure sheepishly emerges. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” someone cries. But for the first time in America’s love affair with Petraeus, that might be asking too much. However prudish it might sound, it’s going to be very difficult for many Americans to reconcile our battle-weary soldiers and failed war with the unwanted visage of Petraeus in his tighty whities, leaping into bed with his biographer in some love nest carved out of the ISAF headquarters in Kabul (okay, so the papers say the affair with Paula Broadwell started after she spent a year following him around like Cameron Crowe and Led Zeppelin, but you get the picture).
Like it or not, we are the land of the crooked moral compass: oversee the torture of innocent men, encourage sectarian cleansing and raze villages to get at a few militants — all good. Find out the Howdy Doody general is really a lyin’, cheatin’ louse of a husband, well, just stop the presses, let’s give this thing a closer look. That’s not to say Petraeus is finished — not yet — but there’s a lot of confusion where there is normally clarity, at least where his legendary perfection is concerned.
This has caused no small degree of angina pectoris among the establishment media hive in Washington. Now we really get a sense of what it must’ve been like when the good people of Emerald City found out the Great and Powerful Oz was a just roly-poly phony with a tremendous, er, house organ — everyone wailing and blaming and bumping into one another bleary and cross-eyed.
Minutes after Friday’s news, after the black clouds passed over the sun and the birds refused to sing, a parade of pundits guilelessly referred to Petraeus’s resignation as “terribly sad,” a “tragedy,” and I even heard a few blurt out “sacrifice,” as though now, beyond “King,” the adulterer has finally achieved Messiah, climbing up onto the cross to his ultimate martyrdom. This was milk-curdling enough. Then another limbo line of sycophantic press nearly broke their knees to cover his sin in past glories, reminding us of the man’s incredible “popularity” among the troops and with “inside players,” his heroism, his intellectual vigor and genius. This just might have eclipsed the media’s all-time record for gross pusillanimity. But that’s what you get when an entire press corps gorges on spoon-fed “canned peaches, heavy syrup,” for seven years, and then suddenly realizes it was rotten meat all along.
Even U.S Senators were wandering around Dazed and Confused on Friday. Dianne Feinstein, acting like she just found out her favorite teen dream idol was really a hophead, talked about the news as being a “lightning bolt” to the system, and a “heartbreak.”
“I would have stood up for him,” Feinstein declared, ever loyal. “I wanted him to continue.”
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, always on point, issued a brief talisman of a statement for Petraeus, harking back to the good old days when Petraeus helped to sell the war on which McCain and other warhawks had staked their political lives.
“General David Petraeus will stand in the ranks of America’s greatest military heroes,” he bloviated. “His inspirational leadership and his genius were directly responsible — after years of failure — for the success of the surge in Iraq.” Now, everyone pretty much knows that the so-called Surge was part of a massive public relations effort orchestrated by Petraeus to get the U.S out of Iraq with its face intact, but McCain apparently still believes his own fate and that of the Petraeus myth are forever, inextricably intertwined.
As the dust continued to settle on Monday it was clear that Petraeus’s demise was going to be far from decisive. His followers on and off Capitol Hill have effectively connected his resignation to the upcoming Benghazi hearings, and all manner of conspiracy theories abound, the greatest being that somehow he was framed by the administration in order to keep him from testifying. This is such a popular theory that there have been calls to investigate the FBI for investigating Petraeus.
Others with an interest in keeping the real Petraeus firmly behind the curtain have questioned why he should have resigned at all (was that your voice cracking, Tom Ricks?) Still others suggest Petraeus is the victim, an earnest dolphin swimming in shark-infested waters, Paula Broadwell being the sexy siren whose call had him dashing blindly against the rocks. All of this seems to be having some impact on the public court of opinion: on Monday morning, I just happened to come across the super-smooth Soul Town DJ on SiriusXM waxing on the ex-general’s war credentials and the big scandal. “Something stinks,” he concluded simply before transitioning right into Wilson Pickett’s “Engine Number Nine.” No explanation. Perhaps it wasn’t necessary. For most Americans, I predict, the mere appearance of ambitious seduction and political skullduggery against the sterling knight will be enough to stave off a real backlash against him.
Plus, having two Lance Armstrongs in one month’s time might be too much to handle, even for our famously cynical American sensibilities.
Of course there were plenty of us who tried, however futilely, to convince the world that the general was wearing no clothes (ouch). “Petraeus is a remarkable piece of fiction created and promoted by neocons in government, the media and academia. Think about it,” blasted Ret. Col. Doug Macgregor, in an email exchange with Antiwar.com on Monday. He knew Petraeus at West Point and for the record, never once believed his walk-on-water shtick.
How does an officer with no personal experience of direct fire combat in Panama or Desert Storm become a division [commander] in 2003, a man who shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced regardless of its impact on soldiers, let alone the nation, a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide de camp, military assistant and executive officer to four stars get so far? How does the same man who balked at closing with and destroying the enemy in 2003 in front of Baghdad agree to sacrifice more than a thousand American lives and destroy thousands of others installing Iranian national power in Baghdad with a surge that many in and out of uniform warned against? Then, how does this same man repeat the self-defeating tactics one more time in Afghanistan?
The answer is simple: Petraeus was always a useful fool in the Leninist sense for his political superiors — [Paul] Wolfowitz, [Donald] Rumsfeld, and [Bob] Gates. And that is precisely how history will judge him.
Maybe, maybe not. On a positive note, there’s a lot of discussion today about drawing that curtain back to reveal the real man behind it. Journalists are even admitting they were duped, sucked in with the rest of the courtiers and COINdinistas perpetuating the positive war narrative and the military idolatry (they call Petraeus “P4” which sounds too much like “PlayStation 4,” but in light of the affair, this might not be the best moniker — too many possible joystick references). Wired’s Spencer Ackerman probably offers the most poignant and honest lament in this regard, though Ackerman, really, was never one of the greatest offenders.
Still, he suggests Petraeus and his staff were masters at handling the press, with effectively subtle methods that played upon reporters’ thirst for access and their unabashed awe (and sense of inferiority) amidst the military milieu, which led to unquestioning, positive coverage while insuring that these guardians of the Fourth Estate spent more time proving Petraeus was right instead of doggedly pursuing the opposite.
To be clear, none of this was the old quid-pro-quo of access for positive coverage. It worked more subtly than that: the more I interacted with his staff, the more persuasive their points seemed. Nor did I write anything I didn’t believe or couldn’t back up — but in retrospect, I was insufficiently critical …
Another irony that Petraeus’ downfall reveals is that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realizing it.
Macgregor and others (Andrew Bacevich, Gian Gentile come to mind) warned from the start that Petraeus was bad news, a politically-driven, Type-A narcissist who fostered a delusional cult of himself at a time when the American people — and the military ranks — deserved truth, not spin, about the wars overseas. His now (in)famous “inner circle” not only included neoconservative think tankers, fawning scholars, court scribes and officer-acolytes like the ill-fated Gen. Stanley McChrystal and John Nagl, but his future paramour Broadwell. All played some role in overstating the impact and brilliance of the Surge, and of the COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine. Most importantly, by rising through the ranks and positioning carefully at the levers of power and academia and the influential Center for a New American Security, the “in-crowd” railroaded dissent and insulated the military from necessary scrutiny, first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan.
All of these roads of denial and delusion lead right back to David Petraeus, the Donald Draper of the Pentagon, the only general for which reporters would leap out like hell cats to defend him, and his war, at any sign of discord. Just ask Michael Hastings, who suffered not just one, but many vicious press attacks, including a swipe by Broadwell herself, over his takedown of Stanley McChrystal. The fact is, Broadwell became part of Petraeus’s unrivaled PR machine as she traveled with him for a year on the taxpayers’ dime (see: the razing of Tarok Kolache).
Some of the reporting on Monday indicated a softening of the facade. Members of Petraeus’s old staff (mostly unidentified, of course) suggested to The Washington Post that the introduction of Broadwell to the scene in 2009 might have been the bright scarlet red line that finally separated Petraeus from his carefully crafted reality. They said her welcome into the fold and coveted placement as Petraeus’s confidant, running partner and traveling companion raised a few eyebrows at the time (though their anonymous retrospectives seem petty and a bit of peevish, kind of like when Martin Landau gleefully tells his boss James Mason that Eva Marie Saint is two-timing him in Hitchcock’s “North-by-Northwest”). Others subtly suggest that when he left the Army in 2011, the suddenly needy Petraeus continued to play Dr. Higgins to Broadwell’s Liza Doolittle, getting a steaming fawning load of hagiography in return. But it would turn out to be at a bitter cost: no one now will take All In: The Education of David Petraeus very seriously, and his four stars will forever be tarnished by the whole affair.
But what does this whole thing say about the American public? Well, at first blush, I’d say we deserved every single second of this painful, tawdry realization. We’ve turned into such a pathetic plastic consumer culture that we bought a pathetic plastic story of a hero-general and then expected enormously great things from him. We looked away when Petraeus did not perform — even made excuses for him (it was all President Obama’s fault). Even after his admission that he cheated on his wife of 37 years with a married woman and mother of two young sons, we will make excuses because it will make us feel better about the suckers we’ve all become.
We do have a choice of course: close the curtain or keep it open. I just wish Jeff Huber were here to write about it.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.