How did this become the nation's business?

Before the fall: Gen. David Petraeus and his more-than- biographer, Paula Broadwell, in July 2011.
Before the fall: Gen. David Petraeus and his more-than- biographer, Paula Broadwell, in July 2011. (Associated Press / ISAF, File)

Generals and privates.

Posted: November 19, 2012

What do we talk about when we talk about Gen. David Petraeus? Or, more precisely, Petraeus, Paula Broadwell, Gen. John Allen, the Khawam twins from Lower Moreland, and Frederick Humphries II, a.k.a. the shirtless FBI agent?

The debacle, little more than a week old, abruptly upended the illustrious career of Petraeus, the four-star general and now-former CIA chief whose image the media and biographer/paramour Broadwell burnished like a brass star. All In became All Out. Even in crisis, Petraeus remained mythic, likened to Icarus and Othello, while the scandal stoked the news cycle's voracious maw.

Is this any of our business? The Wire and Treme creator David Simon, a former reporter, argues no, that when it comes to adultery, we should be more like the French. "This is just sex," he wrote in Salon, noting, "Sex, done right, is some powerful stuff." He didn't write stuff, but you get the point.

True, this is the human condition. People are fallible. Generals get lonely.

Then again, we don't live in France, a country where the elite too long tolerated Dominique Strauss-Kahn's egregious behavior. Generals, governing a world dependent on rules, understand the responsibilities that come with authority.

And this is no longer merely a zipper problem.

The scandal's surreal trajectory started with harassing, anonymous e-mails sent from Broadwell to Jill Kelley about keeping her manicured mitts off Petraeus and ended in shambles with serious collateral damage. As columnist Roger Cohen observed, "Well, an FBI agent on friendly terms with a Florida socialite (enough to send her shirtless photos of himself) can, on the basis of a half-dozen mildly harassing e-mails she had received, set in motion an invasive inquiry that ends up leaving the CIA without a permanent director and putting the appointment of the next Supreme Allied Commander in Europe on hold." And at an inopportune moment as hostilities escalate between Israel and Hamas.

The former head of the CIA was investigated by the FBI and now the Pentagon, government entities with a long history of not playing well together. President Obama said last week he had no evidence "that classified information was disclosed in any way that would've had a negative impact on our national security."

Obama's critics had already hatched conspiracy theories about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Now, they're asking why the story went public right after the election. Petraeus testified Friday on the attack before Congress but behind closed doors.

We are, by our nature, curious animals. We want to know what we don't know. Adultery begins with a lie and spreads into a tangle of deceit. The CIA is built on secrets, and spies intrigue us. They inspire awe and global entertainment.

The scandal is also remarkable for the speed at which it unraveled and became public, and the prominent role technology played. Letters can be hidden or burned, but quickly composed and transmitted e-mails can live almost forever with little place to hide. They're first drafts of scandal. That the public gained swift access to such private dealings seems all the more remarkable when Petraeus and Allen are involved, men used to wielding control. Privilege and power had little sway.

There is the curious juxtaposition of Allen commanding U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan yet finding time to exchange dozens of "flirtatious" e-mails with Kelley and write letters of support - Petraeus, too! - for her sister's nasty custody battle. Money and class are also part of the story. Kelley, with her Kardashian looks and Real Housewife of Tampa lifestyle, incurred serious debt courting military and political potentates.

Gossip is how we share intimacies without revealing much of ourselves. The Petraeus debacle quickly filled the chasm created when the national conversation about the election finally ended. The speed of the news' delivery, and our newfound tendency to be tethered to "smart" machines, portals of constant chatter, make people feel "informed," even if the information appears to be none of our business. Turns out the great, powerful, and absurdly fit are sometimes less so, and their flaws are not so different from our own.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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