She had been a paragon for so long — hard-driving, hard-jogging, ambitious, Harvard-educated.
And he was so alluring. There he was, jogging alongside her, in his uniform-fitting clothing, with his prematurely browning hair, wearing that camouflage, displaying his rack of medals. Sure, she had a husband. But one time, there was a hearing, and he wore a shirt to it. Also, look at his symmetrical face. Sure, she’d made vows, but how could she expect to honor them over the loud cawing sound of biology demanding: “PAULA! CAST YOUR MAN ASIDE! LEAP INTO THE ARMS OF THE STRONGER PROVIDER! EAT YOUR NESTLINGS!”
It was inevitable, really. He was 20 years her senior, flush with power, and they were overseas, and — well, who could withstand such temptation? Did I mention his BMI? At one point, he locked horns with a smaller elk and flung it down a mountain pass to its death.
I cannot quite do justice to the tenor of much of the Broadwell coverage. It’s not just the descriptions of her toned arms. It’s the curious aura of biological inevitability that lingers over everything.
If I read an article on the Petraeus scandal too early in the morning without having my bearings, I worry that I have drifted back in time. 2012? Can’t be. Surely this must be a sick joke.
If I had a neatly stitched quilt for every reference to Broadwell’s clothing, her prom queen status, her body mass, or a dismissal of her sizeable array of legitimate accomplishments as a shiny magpie pile designed only to attract a man, I’d have enough to fill a hope chest and bring young landed gentlemen in knee-breeches to the house a-courting — and a good thing, too, since that’s apparently the era we’re living in.
Who are these curvaceous temptresses? The last time such a woman led a man astray it was 1930, and even then it was a bit of a stretch.
Look at the Daily Beast, which describes Jill Kelley and Paula Broadwell in the following terms: “The besotted Broadwell may have viewed the curvaceous Kelley as a threat. Broadwell may be able to run a six-minute mile with Petraeus, but Kelley looks like a woman who lets the guys do all the running — and in her direction.”
Yup. That’s what they do. They run. No doubt emitting deep bass yawps and inflating their large blue throats.
As everyone repeatedly insists, it takes one to tango. She was “a good-looking lady throwing herself at him” (Pat Robertson) and “He’s a man” (also Pat Robertson). Maybe we can cut Pat Robertson some slack; he just discovered last week that women might be interested in pornography, and he is Very Worried About It, so he may be broadcasting from 1957.
The thing that confuses me most about these articles is, exactly how far back in time we are supposed to be? On one hand, all of these comments about Broadwell’s glossy hair and “fresh eggs” sound prehistoric. This whole scandal must be set sometime in the early Ice Age, when the expectation that two human beings might be able to control their impulses for any amount of time in the face of so many screeching biological imperatives is too far-fetched to take seriously. Restraint? Morality? Shh, Good Face, Smell Nice. Woman Must Be Dragged to Cave.
Or perhaps it’s the 18th century, when “mistress” was still a relevant term.
Mistress is one of those words that always seems to be visiting from another time period. It seems most at home in the company of antiquated terms like “cooper” and “cuckquean” and “garderobe.” Mistress. For some reason it seems less out of place in stories of the misdeeds of foreigners. It is one of those quaint habits, like wearing lederhosen or taking afternoon naps, long discarded in America but still unaccountably popular overseas.
It’s something we used to have in the 1700s, when being a mistress was a form of livelihood that offered professional role models like Nell Gwynn and Madame Pompadour. It lingered, afterward, among the 1 percent and those sufficiently powerful and lacking in fidelity to add a “mistress” slot to their retinue. But once women became able to earn their own living, “being kept” went down the tubes as a primary career option. Every time I hear it, it conjures up visions of a woman waiting in a bathrobe on the other side of town, pouring tea, waving her fan and wondering whether Mr. Hamilton will be joining us for lunch. Or it’s an archetype who charges onstage in seamed stockings and puts lipstick on your collar and bursts into tears. It’s a role. It’s not a person, that’s for sure.
Nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find a mistress.
There certainly isn’t one in the Petraeus story. What this story has is two people — both married, both competent to support themselves — who made a harmful mistake. Never mind the fraught vocabulary and the relations it implies. Never mind the screaming birds in the underbrush.