The Broader Implications of the Petraeus Resignation: Personal Behavior and Public Office
General David Petraeus was the hero of the winning surge in Iraq. But he also has the distinction of becoming America’s first politically correct field commander. His strategy in Afghanistan was in line with that of the Obama administration by putting the emphasis on winning Muslim hearts and minds as a higher priority than military victories or even at times the safety of American soldiers. There’s a reason why President Barack Obama made him CIA director.
Leaving aside the question of the resignation’s relationship to the Benghazi debacle, in some ways, his fall is more discouraging than the election results. Don’t these powerful people feel that their duty is more important than their personal self-aggrandizement or pleasure? We should remember, too, that Petraeus’s predecessor in Afghanistan was brought down because of some incautious things said in a magazine interview.
Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Herman Cain, John Edwards, Ted Kennedy, Larry Craig, Richard Nixon, and other politicians supposedly represented certain ideas, policies, and the hopes and dreams of millions of people who worked hard for them and put their trust in them. Can’t they put aside what they might also desire for the sake of those things?
I have seen with my own two eyes Kennedy drunk on the floor of the Senate and I know a lot from first-hand observation about the private adventures of former Senator Chris Dodd and Hart. And all of the above hasn’t begun to touch on financial corruption.
Of course, many do behave differently and far better. A few years ago, I’d have said that perhaps the media has become too willing and able to expose the foibles of those at the top. Yet after the spectacle of a Teflon Obama and his entourage, it would be more correct to say that the media only exposes those it wants to for political purposes. Then, too, Clinton and Kennedy didn’t suffer at all from their amorousness and bad driving.
If I’m not mistaken, there are now Democratic senators from Connecticut and Massachusetts who lied about their military records. The latter one, Senator John Kerry, may soon be secretary of State, which will be a global disaster of major proportions. There is also now a Democratic senator from Massachusetts who clearly lied about being a Cherokee in order to receive preferential treatment for a job.
I have seen in the National Archives the OSS report during World War II that a Danish journalist was a Nazi spy. And this is the woman with whom John F. Kennedy had an affair. For that reason, he was shipped out by his father to the Pacific front, where he would be made a hero through a combination of his bad navigation and subsequent brave behavior in the sinking of PT-109. General Dwight Eisenhower’s and President Franklin Roosevelt’s affairs during World War II are today well known. But those were times when things remained quiet.
Why, though, are these personal matters anyone else’s business? The debate usually focuses around an argument between what is proper morality and whether Americans are too puritanical. The French, we are told, rejoice when their politicians get naughty.
But there is another far more important issue altogether that is rarely aired. If a politician or major public figure believes in what he’s doing and knows that exposure of his misdeed would destroy that mission, how can they give in to temptation if they really believe in the importance of that mission or in the importance of keeping faith with those who are relying on them?
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