Retired Gen. David H. Petraeus' speech Tuesday, at a USC dinner honoring… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Signaling a desire to return to public life, retired Gen. David H. Petraeus offered an apology Tuesday for the scandal that led to his resignation as director of the CIA and brought an illustrious career to an abrupt end.
Petraeus has kept a low profile since admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, in November. The speech, at a USC dinner honoring veterans and ROTC students, is the first step in what appears to be a carefully choreographed comeback attempt.
Before about 600 guests in a hotel ballroom in downtown Los Angeles, a confident but contrite Petraeus acknowledged that he is "regarded in a different light now" than he was a year ago.
"I am also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey was my own doing," he said. "So please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret — and apologize for — the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters."
At the same time, Petraeus made it clear that he would like to move on: "One learns after all that life doesn't stop with such a mistake; it can and must go on."
Petraeus, 60, is credited with drafting the military's counterinsurgency doctrine. As commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, he helped turn around the war. He also led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring from the Army in 2011 to become intelligence chief.
Petraeus resigned Nov. 9, citing "extremely poor judgment" for engaging in the affair, which came to light during an FBI investigation. Later that month, Petraeus testified behind closed doors at two congressional hearings on an attack by heavily armed militants in the Libyan city of Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last year.
But until Tuesday, he had generally avoided public appearances, retreating to his suburban home in Arlington, Va. Friends and former aides said Petraeus was focusing on his family.
His wife, Holly, a longtime advocate for military families, did not attend the speech.
"I know that I can never fully assuage the pain that I inflicted on those closest to me and on a number of others," Petraeus said. "I can, however, try to move forward in a manner that is consistent with the values to which I subscribed before slipping my moorings and, as best as possible, to make amends to those I have hurt and let down."
But as one friend put it Tuesday, "I don't think it's in his DNA to just retire."
Petraeus offered few specifics about his plans, saying only that he has agreed to support several nonprofit groups that assist veterans. Acquaintances have said that he has also received offers to teach at universities, give speeches and sit on the boards of major corporations.
"I could see him being on the talking circuit," said the friend, who asked not to be identified. "I can see him doing consultancy, teaching.… I could see him as a future national security advisor, but that depends on who is in charge."
Petraeus' rehabilitation is being managed by a high-powered Washington lawyer, Robert B. Barnett, whose clients have included former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Barnett said Petraeus was declining all interview requests.
Tuesday's speech, which was arranged months before he resigned, provided Petraeus with an opportunity to engage with a friendly audience on issues that matter to him, notably the needs of service members and their families.
USC enrolls about 450 veterans per semester and has been a pioneer in training social workers and developing technology to address their needs.
Petraeus said the nation has a responsibility to look after the families of the fallen, to care for the wounded, to help veterans transition to civilian life and to honor their service. While support continues to improve, he said, "We can and must do more."
He added: "Helping those who have given so much is simply the right thing to do."
He was given two standing ovations.