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The Broader Implications of the Petraeus Resignation: Personal Behavior and Public Office

And if they don’t care at all about those things, how can they be worthy of wielding power? It is not so much a question of personal morality as it is of character, not an issue of private life but of whether one takes seriously the concept of duty. If, for example, Bill Clinton was willing to risk his presidency for having some sort of relations -- even if he could define them as not having had sex in some physiological sense -- with Monica Lewinsky and then, according to the court finding, commit perjury about his behavior, that is not the sort of person one should want to be president. The fact that he escaped impeachment for the latter offense is not the point. His being willing to take that chance is the issue.

There is also something in the character of those who lust for power and fame — and I write this from long observation growing up in Washington, D.C. — that very much distorts one’s personality. Such people almost inevitably feel superior to others and arrogant that they can get away with anything. They start to take for granted that they deserve privileges but that the rules don’t apply to them. That’s why the founders of America wanted to limit government and the power of those who ran it.

Such wisdom is even older, though it has only rarely done humanity much good. “Put not your trust in princes,” says Psalm 146. Rabbi Hillel said almost two thousand years ago that the obsessively ambitious end up by destroying themselves.

Today, it isn’t so much that Republicans are more upstanding. The difference is that they pay for their sins because the media is so quick to devour them. If, say, a Republican candidate for the Senate in Missouri says something stupid once, he’s finished. If a Democrat does so, even repeatedly racialist statements, he gets to be vice president for another four years. That’s reality.

Before the French Revolution, there was ironic talk of those classes which could or could not be tortured. This distinction now applies to public figures as well.

Note: Of course, things could be worse regarding personal dishonesty. Petraeus's counterpart in Jordan, Muhammad al-Dahabi, has just been sentenced to 13 years in jail for money laundering, embezzlement, and abuse of power during his three years in the job, ending in 2008. He is alleged to have stolen more than $30 million. At the same time, though, in America that's just small change to pay to a green energy company in exchange for campaign contributions.


Image courtesy shutterstock / Linda Bucklin