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Even the best and brightest can be knuckleheads

The Petraeus and Secret Service scandals show once again how people entrusted with tremendous responsibilities can be brought down by their naivete.

November 16, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • David Petraeus testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2010.
David Petraeus testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

It seemed at first like a welcome break from political overload. There's nothing like a juicy sex scandal to relieve election fatigue.

But this one, it turns out, brims with suggestions of military misconduct and questions of national security that have talking heads droning about matters of policy while most of us just want the dope on disgraced generals, the West Point vixen and Kardashian-esque identical twins.

By now, we are all caught up on the basics of the scandal that brought down C.I.A. Director David Petraeus:

The retired general had an extramarital affair with his attractive biographer. She sent threatening emails to a Tampa socialite whom she considered a rival. The socialite's complaint to an FBI agent launched a probe that brought down the general and tarnished his comrade, Gen. James Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Investigators spent months scouring in-boxes and reading thousands of messages. They did not find evidence that national security has been compromised.

But they did find a web of tangled relationships, fueled by sexually suggestive emails and the sort of online cloak-and-dagger antics used by teenagers and terrorists to hide secret lives.

There is lots of argument about whether Petraeus should have resigned over infidelity. Some see this as Greek tragedy: a smart, hard-charging leader, brought down by vaunted risk-taking and voracious needs.

I see it more as a series of comic misadventures — the retired general and his wingman in the thrall of younger, hotter chicks.

The story really isn't that hard to fathom. We've heard it all before.

Petraeus is no tragic figure, just a middle-aged man caught up in a cat-fight, reduced to knucklehead status by his own stupidity.



That's what President Obama called Secret Service agents whose Colombian strip club adventures embarrassed the agency last spring.

The officers were supposed to be preparing Cartagena for the president's arrival. Instead, they were visiting strip clubs, getting drunk and partying in hotel rooms with local prostitutes.

They got caught when an angry hooker raised a ruckus because her agent wouldn't pay up. That's knucklehead No. 1.

Almost a dozen agents lost their jobs. Yet Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan blamed "the atmosphere and the environment." Translation: Sexy women, a foreign country, too much alcohol.

And before long, what politicians had called "the worst moment" in Secret Service history was being written off as nothing more than a grown-man version of "Girls Gone Wild."

It's too early to say what the shelf-life of the Petraeus scandal will be. Its dimensions are still unfolding, and the titillation factor rules.

But the public chatter has already made one thing clear: If Petraeus is a fallen hero, it's the women's fault he fell.

We blame his wife, because she's so homely. Or his mistress, because she's so hot.


It's not surprising that people have focused on the physical dynamics. That reflects our personal fears, our preoccupation with youth and beauty, our need to compartmentalize.

Petraeus' wife, Holly, seems to have, to put it gently, let herself go. Commentators have had a field day with her weight, her gray hair, her frumpy wardrobe.

The implication is clear: What man married to her wouldn't jump at the chance to get it on with a vixen like Petraeus' mistress, Paula Broadwell, a pretty West Point-bred fitness buff brimming with self-confidence and blessed with 13% body fat?

But Holly is not the problem. It turns out Broadwell is the hot mess here.

She seems to be saddled, like Petraeus, with a crippling sense of hubris, accustomed to success, unable to stomach losing.

When Petraeus ended their relationship, Broadwell slipped to jilted-lover status, determined to dispatch her rivals and reclaim her man.

Never mind her Harvard degree, her Army intelligence experience, her loving husband and little sons and picture-perfect life back home. Her Type-A tendencies kicked into overdrive, amped up on heartbreak and hormones.

And Petraeus, the king of intelligence, didn't see this coming?

Women in love do crazy things. We always have and always will. And high-achieving women not primed for loss just might be the most determined and irrational.

Who can forget the married astronaut lady who told police she drove cross country in diapers because she didn't want to waste time on bathroom stops as she rushed to do away with the girlfriend of her former lover?

It's astonishing that Petraeus — the C.I.A. head, the man in America arguably charged with knowing the most about everything — couldn't think 10 steps ahead on a subject so mythic and universal that it comes down, for us on the sidelines, to little more than common sense.

We shouldn't be outraged just by his morals, but by his naivete. A man charged with out-thinking our enemies turns out to be a four-star knucklehead about human nature.

In this way, Petraeus seems not much different from those Secret Service agents who turned a presidential-protection assignment into a frat house bacchanal. He's a philandering man undone by a woman who didn't get what she bargained for.

So one more time, for those guys still too thick-headed to get it:

It might feel good in the moment, fellows. But unless you plan to leave your wife and marry your mistress, it's bound to turn ugly when you try to move on.

And it doesn't matter if she's a stripper with a loud mouth and a cellphone or a celebrated veteran with espionage skills and a secret email address.

One thing hasn't changed in 400 years: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

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