Now, we know how it ends for Petraeus.
His resignation Friday as CIA director because of an acknowledged extramarital affair aborts an almost four-decade-long career in public service defined by boundless ambition, political savvy and strategic acumen. And it almost certainly tarnishes the legacy of a man seen by many as the nation’s preeminent military leader in the post-Sept. 11 world, a commander who turned around the failing Iraq war and dealt the Taliban a bloody punch in Afghanistan.
He falls from a self-built pedestal that was based on more than battlefield heroics. As a general, his principal message to the troops under his command was not just about military tactics and high-concept strategy. He preached individual leadership above all else, often telling his charges that character meant doing the right thing when nobody was watching.
For Petraeus, a compact man with seemingly limitless energy, the race to the top began early.
Petraeus grew up outside the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which he entered as a cadet in July 1970. “A striver to the max, Dave was always ‘going for it’ in sports, academics, leadership, and even his social life,” the West Point yearbook noted in 1974. A month after he graduated, he married Holly Knowlton, the daughter of the academy’s then-superintendent.
Petraeus quickly made a mark as a young officer, earning awards in almost every assignment. He received all three prizes awarded in his class at Ranger School, perhaps the Army’s toughest physical challenge.
Unlike most of his peers, he adroitly pursued opportunities that were not always the most exciting but would come to help him later. He chose to serve as an aide to four-star generals, carrying their bags and cultivating valuable friendships. He also carved out time for advanced education, culminating in a doctorate from Princeton University.
Two accidents almost ended his career. In 1991, he was shot in the chest with an M-16 rifle when a soldier tripped during a training exercise. While skydiving in 2000, his parachute collapsed while he was 60 feet off the ground; the impact shattered his pelvis.