Why the Petraeus affair captivates us all


November 12, 2012

The resignation of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency over an extramarital affair was bound to be big news, no matter who held the job. That’s especially the case when it fell just days after a presidential election and less than a week before hearings on intelligence questions in Libya are set to begin.

But when that director is also a larger-than-life former general and “a man seen by many as the nation’s preeminent military leader in the post- Sept. 11 world,” the news takes on a life of its own, with around-the-clock analysis, media investigations into all the people involved and persistent questions about what more there might be to know. The sudden fall from grace of a leader of retired general David Petraeus’s standing is simultaneously tragic, utterly disappointing and, for many of us, completely irresistible.

Why is it that the greater the aura that surrounds a leader, the more rapt we become by their downfall?

It’s simple, really. Seeing that Petraeus himself is fallible (and perhaps even more vulnerable to temptation due to the trappings or loneliness of power) somehow helps us feel better, subconsciously even, about our own faults. No matter how much we may be disappointed to see that one of the very few widely respected leaders in this country has let down his guard, there’s also something oddly captivating about the fact that he too is capable of making egregious mistakes.

With his superhuman stature—he of the six-minute mile, the PhD from Princeton, the potential presidential candidacy—Petraeus has rarely been associated with faults. This was a man who preached integrity, who was known for mentoring upcoming leaders and whose “Rules for Living,” a leadership guide written by his biographer and paramour, Paula Broadwell, was actually published just a week ago. Here’s rule number five: “We all will make mistakes. The key is to recognize them and admit them, to learn from them, and to take off the rear­ view mirrors—drive on and avoid making them again.”

Would we be so enthralled by the story of his affair and resignation if Petraeus were not already sitting atop a pedestal? Doubtful. As SpyTalk blogger Jeff Stein writes over at Foreign Policy, a top CIA official after 9/11 was caught on a security camera getting oral sex from a woman who worked for the agency. The story was “widely circulated, but “it didn’t dent his reputation, perhaps because he was poorly regarded anyway, three agency sources said, and already on the way out.”

This is what happens when we—the media, the public and the leaders themselves—build up humans into heroes. The higher they climb, the more power they’re invested with, the more invincible they seem, the more they’re set up to fall. When this happens, we’re simultaneously shocked (why would someone in his position risk it all?) and yet can’t peel our eyes away.

There’s little question that Petraeus had a brilliant career and contributed a tremendous public service to this country. But maybe it’s a good thing the new interim director of the Central Intelligence Agency is no celebrity general and no publicly heralded superman. CIA veteran Michael J. Morell, who also served as acting director when Leon Panetta resigned in 2011 to become Secretary of Defense, has been called “the man behind the curtain.” He is also said to have “nearly no public profile.”

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

A tale of two Obama victory speeches

What makes an excellent president

For Obama, where has Lincoln gone?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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