Of the good number of American men who were leaders, whose reputations were tarnished in recent years by scandal, no one was more foolish, or more egregious, than General David Petraeus.
The list of highly placed men who have been hoisted, so to speak, by their own petard is long. Moreover many of these men were perfectly idiotic in the level of risk that they took by engaging in practices that, if disclosed, were bound deeply to humiliate them. But Petraeus was singular, first because his vaulted position as the most esteemed and admired military man of his time seemed etched in stone; second because as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency he held a post defined by trust; and third because his fall from grace was occasioned not only by his betrayal on a personal level, but by his betrayal on a professional one.
Our proclivity has been to position Petraeus alongside other leaders whose lust and, or, love, did them in, at least temporarily, men such as Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and Mark Sanford. But what Petraeus did was materially different. He was guilty, by his own admission, not merely of adultery, which presumably is his business, but of providing his lover (and biographer) with notebooks that contained classified information. This, presumably, is our business. The nation’s business.
What he did, in other words, was an outrage. His was an outrageous abdication of responsibility as one of America’s most highly placed leaders. Nevertheless, the government has chosen to give him no more than a slap on the wrist. What’s even scarier, or, at least more offensive, is that we, the American people, seem ready to give him a pass as well. The White House recently admitted it is consulting with Petraeus on the situation in the Middle East, and the Washington Post just quoted him as guru on how dangerous is Iran. It’s clear that now that the legal case against him is in effect settled, Petraeus is staging a comeback.
I’m modestly into forgiveness. And I’ve written extensively on America’s apology culture, especially as it applies to leaders. But some things leaders do are not forgivable. Providing your lover with access to some of the nation’s secrets is one of them. It’s obvious Petraeus does not himself have the grace to retire from public life. So what we should be doing is not engaging him – but retiring him ourselves.