The Media’s Five Stages of David Petraeus Grief

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Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images/Getty

Beneath the mess of sexy messages and shirtless FBI agents in the David Petraeus affair sits another fractured relationship: the one between the retired four-star general and the fawning press. For years, Petraeus represented an ideal American form, both brains and brawn, winning over not just Paula Broadwell, but many of the reporters and pundits charged with covering him, using his go-to moves like frequent e-mails and five-mile runs. Since the myth of his character was shattered on Friday, journalists have squirmed their way through incomplete, intertwined answers to the questions "How could he do this?" and "How could we not have known?" Their grief has followed a predictable pattern.

Denial

Throughout Petraeus's long, "professional" relationship with his protégé-turned-biographer, Broadwell was notable for unprecedented access to the general, sharing flights and lodging with his team while never tempering her public admiration, culminating in the book-length love note All In. Broadwell's co-author on the tome was Vernon Loeb of the Washington Post, who writes in today's paper that the rumors were there, but he ultimately had no idea.

"On rare occasions, her good looks and close access would prompt a colleague to raise an eyebrow about their relationship, but I never took it seriously," Loeb admitted. "So when the news broke Friday that Petraeus was resigning in disgrace because of an adulterous affair, I was dumbfounded. 'Could it be Paula?' my friends and colleagues asked immediately. Even then, I said I would give her the benefit of the doubt — until the doubt evaporated a few hours later."

"I always thought that Broadwell’s motives were pure, and I always wondered why Petraeus was granting her the access that he did," he added. "Was something going on with Petraeus? I always said I didn't think so." Could you imagine?

Anger

Although a contrarian view of Petraeus could hardly be heard over the swooning sighs of most journalists before last week, Buzzfeed and Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings never much liked Petraeus's work, although he admits even now, "he'll always have my respect and twisted admiration."

Still, when the scandal broke, Hastings used the opportunity to lash out at Petraeus not just as "a world-class bullshit artist," but about the general's "core dishonesty" regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Piers Morgan last night, Hastings went off on both Petraeus's record and the media's role "in protecting David Petraeus and promoting David Petraeus and mythologizing David Petraeus."

Bargaining

The guilt and "what ifs" were on clear display at Wired, where Danger Room reporter Spencer Ackerman repented for his previous gushing over Petraeus and cringed while remembering how good it felt when the general referred to him by name. "Another irony that Petraeus' downfall reveals is that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realizing it," he wrote.

"None of this is to say that Petraeus was actually a crappy officer whom the press turned into a genius," Ackerman concluded. "That would be just as dumb and ultimately unfair as lionizing Petraeus, whose affair had nothing to do with his military leadership or achievements. ... But it is to say that a lot of the journalism around Petraeus gave him a pass, and I wrote too much of it."

Depression

CNN's Wolf Blitzer spoke for many in the mainstream press while mourning news of the scandal as it first filtered out. "A very, very sad moment given his distinguished military career, his career more recently in the intelligence community, one of the most brilliant generals by all accounts we have had over the years, a Ph.D., graduate of Princeton University," he said on-air. "Somebody who is not only a general, but a scholar who knows the stuff and by all accounts doing an excellent job over at the CIA. So it is a very sad moment not only for him and his family, but for everyone who knows him and indeed for the country right now."

"I want to just underscore how sad this is for the U.S. military, the Army, the CIA, indeed the country, that someone of this stature must end a career under these circumstances," Blitzer stressed.

"He made us all feel special," said Blizter's colleague Erin Burnett. "How quickly he would respond to e-mails." Moment of silence.

Acceptance

It's been, what, five days now? Let's move on and allow Petraeus to do what he's best at, writes Richard Cohen at the Washington Post. "The list of Washington sex scandals is long and, really, quite distinguished. One would have to include John F. Kennedy and, just to be fair, Thomas Jefferson," he assured us.

"But now that it has all been done, is there a better man to fill Petraeus's CIA seat than Petraeus himself? He is blackmail-proof and more than qualified for the job. ... He betrayed [his wife], not his country. No more need be said. Now get back to work."