Walter Russell Mead raises an important point about the Petraeus Affair.
Neither General Eisenhower nor President Franklin Roosevelt could have stood the scrutiny provided by today’s mix of press vigilance and puritan standards. On the whole I’m glad that the powerful are being held to a higher standard, but I don’t think the world would necessarily be a happier place if Dwight Eisenhower had been forced out of the Army in 1942 and FDR driven from the White House a year later.
In a prior post I wrote about Petraeus,
He allowed his own personal folly to threaten the lives of countless CIA operatives and the Americans citizens they serve to protect. I understand the temptations men of power must have, but I have no sympathy. If he’s horny he can chase all the tail he wants in retirement. A truly great man would have avoided temptation and insisted on a male biographer who looked more like Charles Krauthammer instead of a woman of striking appearance, or would have resigned the moment before he succumbed to temptation. A less great man would have admitted his affair publicly and insisted on the acceptance of his resignation the moment he became aware that he was under investigation and the lies had caught up with him.
In the same piece I stated my opposition to the impeachment of President Clinton,
Yes he lied. Yes he was philandering weasel, but he didn’t marry the country he was elected to lead it. His marital transgressions were between him and his wife, and while he deserved scorn, I do not believe that his crime of lying under oath about his illicit affair rose to the level requiring impeachment. I understand while some will disagree with me, saying that lying under oath is a serious crime which I agree it is. But to me there is a difference between Clinton’s lying about his personal life and lying about his political career.
Am I holding Gen. David Petraeus to a higher standard than Bill Clinton, and if so, engaging in a double standard? As Mead notes, “We are simultaneously the most licentious and sexually open society since Nero was fiddling around in Rome, and the most uptight and rigid country this side of Saudi Arabia. Our social judgements and tolerance about sexual behavior swing back and forth between the views of the Marquis de Sade and those of Cotton Mather depending on complex and ever changing calculations.” Mead argues the broader context of the Petraeus affair in American culture, framing it against the recent vote of Los Angeles to require condom usage in porn production and the threat of porn producers to leave the county to avoid the restriction, but it does highlight my own apparent hypocrisy where I’m willing to let Clinton’s transgressions slide but not Gen. David Petraeus’, even though the General is by far the better man.
Part of one’s intellectual development should be to call out and recognize inconsistencies of thought and belief, evaluate them and develop a more mature and consistent world view. Reading Mead’s argument has done that, and I realize that I either I am being too harsh on Petraeus or too easy on Clinton. It will take time to decide which although I am tending to believe I am guilty of the latter, believing the separation between one’s personal life from one’s public life. Gen. Petraeus is a great general. He’s a lousy husband for sure, and I’ll defer judgement on his tenure as head of the CIA - if only because such scandal does undermine the agency and endangers lives as I previously wrote.
I am conflicted because as a devoted husband of over two decades I hold my commitment to my wife as a high honor, one that seems rarer as I get older in this society. When I grew up in the 1970’s I saw my friends devastated by the divorces of their parents and I swore that I would emulate my own parents and remain married no matter what. I’ve done that and I’m rightly proud of it. But at the same time I’ve never forgotten something Dean Esmay once wrote that monogamy is easy until it’s tested. Being as homely in appearance as I am the tests are few and far between, but even for someone like me the opportunities presented themselves and I avoided them immediately. I didn’t take the test because I didn’t enter the classroom or even approach the school building.
I may have not saved Iraq but I have never strayed from the path I set out on over 20 years ago, and that bothers me. I desperately want Petraeus to be the better man. He inspired hundreds of thousands at a time when despair was the order of the day. Doing so he saved countless lives and gave millions a chance at a better life. But he couldn’t stay faithful to his own wife, something that I along with millions of men do every day. It turns out he had feet of clay, and that angers me.
I never held Clinton in such high regard. Sure I voted for him, and agreed with many but not all of his decisions and policies. But the bar was much lower for Clinton than it was for Petraeus, but the General soared so much higher above it. Now he has crashed back to earth, and worse may have jeopardized the lives of thousands of men and women who depended on his leadership.
In France this wouldn’t even be an issue. The French and Europeans in general take a much more permissive view of monogamy than we do. If America had a similar view his failure would not have damaged the CIA and the thousands of people within it, but the General’s patina would still be tarnished in my eyes. We are both men of commitment after all, but one of us failed to live up to that commitment. Call that hypocrisy if you wish, but I’m sorry, I am still disappointed in the clay footprints the man leaves on History.