How to keep writing about the Petraeus-Broadwell affair without the emails
Where do you want to go next with the Petraeus scandal story?
Probably the same place every editor wants to go: To the text! But until we get access, if we ever do, to the actual sexy emails flying around the Pentagon and C.I.A. headquarters, coverage of the unignorable Petraeus story will be somewhat ... entrepreneurial.
There are two kinds of stories coming out while we wait.
One is the incremental, marginal news bit. There'll be lots of those, and they'll ignite short frenzies before being incorporated into the larger story, where they will look kind of insignificant on their own. (Broadwell said some stuff at a conference last month; Dianne Feinstein wants answers; etc.)
But the other kind of story, already popping up, is based on a calculation by editors that this story is going to lumber along for weeks, and that therefore pieces with a Petraeus peg can be assigned days ahead and still be fresh when they come out. The Petraeus Scandal Long Take.
The Times gets credit for coming in early, if not wholly satisfyingly, on the new model of the "WHY MEN CHEAT" theme suggested by l'affaire Petraeus. There's the "Bathsheba complex," and also the narrative of the military-political groupie.
Here's the lede of Tom Shanker's piece in today's Times:
Along with a steady diet of books on leadership and management, the reading list at military “charm schools” that groom officers for ascending to general or admiral includes an essay, “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders,” that recalls the moral failure of the Old Testament’s King David, who ordered a soldier on a mission of certain death — solely for the chance to take his wife, Bathsheba.
Less reported, more essayistic (or just speculative, if you're a skeptic) and ultimately more satisfying versions are beginning already to crop up. Here's Frank Bruni:
It has to be more than mere coincidence that Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern; Newt Gingrich with a Congressional aide (now his wife); John Edwards with a woman who followed him around with a camera, creating hagiographic mini-documentaries about his presidential campaign; and Petraeus with a woman who made him the subject of a biography so worshipful that its main riddle, joked Jon Stewart, was whether Petraeus was “awesome or incredibly awesome.”
These mighty men didn’t just choose mistresses, by all appearances. They chose fonts of gushing reverence. That’s at least as deliberate and damnable as any signals the alleged temptresses put out.
Of course the other point of the piece is, look at the sexist media devouring Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley. And examples both of the attempts to inject the story with sex appeal (they usually end up resulting in just plain sexism) and of people complaining about it are too numerous to link to authoritatively. Just turn on the internet.
But what's next? The Washington Post gives us an idea what a place like Vanity Fair or Esquire might go for: money and lust at the intersection of Tampa high-society and the four-star generals of the MacDill Air Force Base, just a "stone's throw away" from the millionaire's mile where Kelley and Derek Jeter live.
This is a responsibly reported piece, which is to say that it doesn't quite live up to its salacious potential:
The Kelleys’ party-giving had been a tradition for years, friends say, during and after Petraeus was commander of the U.S. Central Command from 2008 until 2010. The two couples developed a genuinely close bond. Kelley and her twin sister, Natalie Khawam, often went shopping and out to lunch with Holly Petraeus, friends said, particularly when her husband was on tour in Afghanistan.
Surely there's more dirt to be dug up in high-society Tampa. Who's up for a trip?