Here’s my TIME.com column today on, what else, L’Affaire Petraeus. Maybe I should start by saying that I met Paula Broadwell at Aspen this summer (where we had a delightful conversation while treadmilling and, yes, she looked awesome and seemed nothing like the caricature that has emerged since).
I wanted to say much more in my column about our fetishistic interest in the ‘other woman’ and what that says about our views of gender and personal responsibility. I don’t think what’s noxious is merely that the portrayal was snarky and one-dimensional (the NYT described her “bragging” because she tweeted about her public speaking appearance like… all public speakers do, right? And most of the articles seemed shocked, shocked that she was guilty of self-promotion on, of all things, a book tour designed to sell books.) I think what’s equally troubling is that we truly believe we need to know personal details about her life. We seem to think we need to know more details about her personal life than about David Petraeus’ life. I find that bizarre. If Hilary Clinton had an affair with a young man, would we think we should know about the guy’s candlelight dinners and how he spent his spring vacation with his young kids? I think not.
Here’s my point: let the ‘feds’ do their investigation, if they must (though that appears to be quite the can of worms with the shirtless FBI agent and the “social ambassador”; do we really think this kind of ‘national security crisis’ with email doesn’t happen every single day?) But in any event, I’m not sure it really matters one bit that Paula Broadwell loves to windsurf and had to cancel her 40th birthday last weekend. I don’t care that she has striking green eyes and enviously toned arms. We don’t need to know “Who is Paula Broadwell?” We really don’t! The only thing that needs to be established is if a crime was committed or military intelligence was compromised. Does the personality of the affair partner matter? Does it matter how much she spent on her pretty house?
Our ‘idee fixe’ about Paula Broadwell masks legitimate questions that might be asked about her boyfriend. I’m not talking about his family values (or lack thereof.) But it might be worth asking if the endemic alpha male sexual culture in the military and virtually everywhere else doesn’t carry some risks for all of us. Whatever needs to be said about the universally hagiographied Petraeus, he certainly wasn’t a hapless victim ensnared by a rapacious man-eater. It takes two to tango, as they say, and he’s the famous celebrity, after all. (Talk about self-promotion…)
Americans remain antediluvian when it comes to the extramarital affairs of public officials, and with the exception of DSK-style, Men Off Leash impropriety, it’s really unclear how often such behavior (albeit morally wrong in most cases) actually affects an office holder’s job performance. But regardless of the merits of snooping around people’s sex lives, what possible national interest do we have in Paula Broadwell’s personal history? None. Let the authorities do their investigation. We should leave her alone.
If you want more on this topic, here’s my TIME.com column:
“Never underestimate America’s appetite for a cat fight. That seems to be the takeaway following days of fevered news coverage of the David Petraeus story. There doesn’t seem to be anything new under the sun to say about the sex lives of powerful men. Nonetheless, it’s dismaying to see all the familiar female stereotypes in this kind of drama while the general, like Zeus, remains largely offstage.
The focus on the hard-driving personality of Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’ partner in the affair, reads like a cartoon version of a successful woman getting her comeuppance. Broadwell was “hardly shy,” “a life-long high achiever” and “prolific” in social media. Early coverage stressed her self-promotion as an author on the talk-show circuit and her lack of journalistic credibility (conveniently glossing over her military background and graduate degrees). Never mind that it’s standard practice for authors to try to sell their books. Her stellar résumé and striking physique were held up as exhibits in a case for a suspicious history of unseemly ambition…