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.
After the knee-jerk biases had taken root, a more nuanced portrait was revealed of a soccer mom who followed her doctor husband to a leafy Charlotte, N.C., enclave and became a familiar community volunteer. (Although if the roles were reversed and a high-ranking female official were involved with a successful young man, would we ever imagine a headline like “Father of Two Accused of Affair”?) But the release of the identity of the recipient of Broadwell’s allegedly harassing e-mails, Jill Kelley, kept the story line fixed on the unhinged femme fatale who “got her claws” in Petraeus, according to an anonymous colleague.
The corollary of the conniving female harpy, of course, is the feckless male dupe entrapped by forces that are somehow beyond his control. Colleagues and press jumped right on board. Petraeus “let his guard down” with Broadwell, we were helpfully informed. President Obama issued a statement, saying, “My thoughts and prayers are with David and Holly Petraeus,” as if the long-married couple had been jointly victimized by an unexpected calamity. Unnamed staffers whispered about Broadwell’s unprecedented access to Petraeus in tones that suggested, if not Mission Impossible–style code-breaking powers, a slightly nefarious ability to get her way. Left unspoken was the fact that Petraeus — one of the most powerful and respected people in the world — was the one conferring the access.
The scholar-soldier who won universal acclaim for his muscular leadership style remains oddly passive in his own story. As a result, our prurient gaze has focused on the “other woman” (or women), not the general. Much remains to be revealed, but already we are subjecting the women involved to an extra layer of scrutiny and scorn. Instead of wondering, Who is Paula Broadwell?, shouldn’t we be asking, Who was David Petraeus?