Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!
So wrote Sir Walter Scott 200 years ago, and now we’re in one of the most tangled webs of scandal we’ve seen in years.
David Petraeus, the leading general of his generation, has resigned as CIA director after acknowledging an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, an overachieving 40-year-old West Point and Harvard graduate who had written a biography of him called, ironically, “All in.”
The affair was exposed when Jill Kelley, a Tampa housewife who knew Petraeus socially, complained to a local FBI agent about harassing emails she could not trace but were later linked to Broadwell. (Incidentally, the FBI agent had hit on Kelley, sending her shirtless photos of himself.)
During the investigation, the FBI uncovered 20,000 to 30,000 pages of “potentially inappropriate emails” between Kelley and Gen. John Allen, 58, who was in charge of the Afghanistan war and is slated to become Supreme Commander of NATO. That promotion is now on hold, of course.
The ties are tangled indeed: Allen and Petraeus sent supporting letters to a judge presiding over the custody trial of Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam. And the Tampa Bay Times reported that Jill Kelley and her cancer surgeon husband have had nine lawsuits filed against them, including a foreclosure action on their $1.5-million waterfront mansion.
Is this just about two powerful married men in a late-midlife crisis who fell for two much younger married women? How much was national security compromised? What about the timing, with the news revealed only a day after the election and the week before Petraeus was scheduled to testify before Congress on the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi?
I suspect we’ll get some but not all of the answers. But what strikes me is how sleazy this whole affair is, like a reality show populated by famous military men on one side and groupies on the other. Call it “’The Real Housewives’ Meet the ‘Jersey Shore’ Generals.” Perhaps it’s just the natural result of the coarsening of standards and the race to the bottom emblematic of Reality TV culture.
Or maybe not. Franklin D. Roosevelt had a long affair with his wife Eleanor’s social secretary Lucy Mercer and so may have Dwight Eisenhower with his secretary Kay Summersby. Were they any more “dignified”? And yet who would not include these two men among the very greatest Americans?
And then there was John F. Kennedy, a thrill-seeking compulsive philanderer who cavorted with Judith Exner, who also was involved with Mafia boss Sam Giancana. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reportedly warned the president about Exner’s mob connections in 1962.
But who could top Bill Clinton, he of the numerous “bimbo eruptions” from Gennifer Flowers to Paula Jones to Monica Lewinsky? The latter almost got him booted from the Oval Office in his 1998 impeachment proceedings, and the gory details that emerged were embarrassing for the president and demeaning to his office.
And yet JFK is still an inspiration to a whole generation while Clinton is viewed as the last president who really got the economy to work for everyone.
In the heat of this scandal, it looks like the worst thing that ever happened, slimy beyond anything we’ve ever seen. But it really isn’t and may actually turn out to be quite mild in comparison.
When it comes to affairs of the heart and gonads, the line from the old Talking Heads song rings especially true: Same as it ever was.