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Frank Rich on the National Circus: Petraeus Affair Just Gets Stranger

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, gives his assessment of ongoing operations there during a program hosted by the National Journal and The Newseum, Friday, March 18, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo)

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the convoluted Petraeus scandal, the GOP's path out of the wilderness, and the future of Fantasyland.

The David Petraeus story seems to get stranger and more convoluted by the day. What part should we be paying the most attention to?
I think the entire country is asking the same question: Why would he resign, and why would Obama accept his resignation, if his only sin was an extramarital affair? Adultery is not a crime and not in itself a security breach. If it were sufficient cause for termination, then the American government would not only be gridlocked but decimated. After money, sex — more than a little of it illicit — is the second fuel that keeps Washington’s power corridors humming. So clearly we don’t know the whole story yet. What’s also fascinating to me is how Paula Broadwell, who had no professional writing experience and didn’t actually write the unfortunately titled All In herself (there’s a credited co-author), had such tentacles not only into Petraeus’s world but into other elite circles in the political-media-Beltway arena. An interesting road map can be found on the book’s Amazon.com page, where we find over-the-top blurbs praising Broadwell by, among others, David Gergen (of CNN) and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a major cheerleader of both the Iraq War in general and Petraeus in particular. Did they know anything before the rest of us did? Did Vernon Loeb, the Washington Post editor who co-wrote All In? If you read Fred Kaplan, the military columnist for Slate who broke the news of Broadwell’s identity last week, it’s clear that Petraeus’s relationship to his biographer had raised many questions long before now. The questions that matter are not about sex but professionalism and possibly security: Petraeus apparently bent rules of procedure and decorum for Broadwell for an extended period of time, and was all but begging to be found out, it seems. 

What do you make of the timing of this story? Had it broken a week earlier, do you think it could have affected the election?
I doubt it. One of the many things that some — and especially the GOP — doesn’t get about this election is that American voters have turned the page on foreign policy and war, at least for the time being. Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt, whatever — all were MIA in polls of concerns driving voters. Benghazi never caught on as a national issue not because the “liberal media” didn’t cover it enough, or Romney didn’t talk about it enough, or Obama was engaged in a masterly cover up. Americans just didn’t care. Many of them, I suspect, don’t know what our role in Libya is or has been. So I think that if Petraeus had resigned in the days before election, it would have been a titillating distraction but nothing to alter the dynamic of a race that had been stable for weeks, if not months. After all, Petraeus was as much a Republican hero as a Democratic one, if not more so — and 24/7 coverage of his affair would have mainly succeeded in drowning out any efforts by Romney to grab media attention in the final stretch, much as Sandy did. One of the many unexplained bits of the Petraeus story so far — that Eric Cantor knew about it before others, through an errant “whistleblower” — makes you wonder if anyone on the GOP side was at least tempted to leak the news early and didn’t, and why.

You wrote a month ago that win, lose, or draw, the hard right would continue its takeover of the GOP and no doubt figure out a way to recapture the White House sooner rather than later. What's their path out of the woods in the coming months?
In the coming months, none. This is a time for finger-pointing and hilariously desperate efforts to find instant fixes, especially to its Latino and women problems. Marco Rubio is already heading to Iowa to start offering himself as the Great Latino GOP Hope, but Greta Van Susteren went him one better by offering a one-stop-shopping solution: She suggested (on ABC’s This Week) that Susana Martinez, who has been governor of New Mexico for less than two years, could be presidential timber. If only the Republicans could find an African-American gay woman of Mexican heritage, all the party’s problems would be solved! More seriously, if you look at the GOP’s suicidal talk right now, and the Democratic and liberal triumphalism, it’s very much a replay of what I wrote about in last month’s piece. After LBJ beat Goldwater in a far bigger victory, an out-and-out landslide, in 1964, Republicans moaned about being consigned to minority party status and possibly oblivion; Democrats talked about having won the war of ideas and demographics as well as the politics. (Goldwater only carried his home state of Arizona and a swath of the Confederate South.) Two years later, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, and four years later Richard Nixon became president. The core small-government credo of conservatives has been remarkably consistent and resilient ever since and still commands a majority following according to last week’s exit polling. What’s more, the GOP bench — Rubio (who’s very slick by the way), Ryan, Christie, Jindal, etc — is far younger than that of the Hillary-Biden post-Obama Democrats. This new Republican generation will find a way to put a kinder, gentler, Hispanic, female face on the GOP soon enough.

What's the biggest mistake Obama could make during that time to play into their hands?
The mistake he made in his first term: failing to make a strong case for why the Democrats’ version of governmental activism is a practical, viable and preferable alternative to the Republican stand that government’s only apparent duties are to cut taxes, bomb Iran, and stick its nose into women’s health care.  

You write this week about the GOP's estrangement from reality on everything from climate change to polling data. Do you see any way back for them from Truthiness to truth?
No. Are the real powers in the GOP going to forswear the echo chamber of Fox News (no matter how much apostate conservatives like David Frum beg them to)? Are they really going to abandon think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, analysts like Michael Barone, and pollsters like Rasmussen that tell them what they want to hear? Are they going to heed climate change science? Are they going to acknowledge that they don’t have just an “outreach” problem with minorities and women but policy problems that extend beyond the party’s harsh line on immigration (which is corrected easily)? I see no signs. Those who got this election wrong and whom I discuss in my “Fantasyland” piece — typified by Karl Rove and Peggy Noonan — aren’t really giving an inch. They are trapped in their own gated community of aging white America and don’t know how to even ask directions to venture beyond it into 21st-century America. Other Republican grandees are calling the defeat “narrow” or blaming it wholly on Romney’s moderation and inept campaign operation. Obama’s victory has only temporarily nicked the conservatives’ bubble, not burst it. 

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Photo: STF