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Suckers for Superheroes

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The party that prompted Petraeus’s grand taxpayer-funded entrance was in honor of Gasparilla, an annual pirate-themed bacchanal that aspires to do for binge-drinking in Tampa what Mardi Gras does for New Orleans. A much circulated party photo shows a grinning Petraeus posing with Jill Kelley, both of them draped in gaudy Gasparilla beads. It is disconcerting to learn that a man tasked with smoking out the Taliban apparently had no clue that the Kelleys were well on their way to becoming major deadbeats who have provoked at least nine lawsuits, piled up six-figure credit-card debt, owe nearly $2.2 million to a bank that threatened to foreclose on a local office building they owned, and spent nearly all the assets of a short-lived family cancer foundation on expenses. A year after that Gasparilla blowout—an experience Petraeus described to a local reporter as “awesome”—he would personally award his hostess the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s second-highest civilian award, a silver medal whose citation vaguely lauded Kelley’s distinguished service in “community outreach.” This past September, Petraeus parachuted into the child-custody fight of Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam, another deadbeat, by writing an effusive letter praising her maternal virtues to the court. Luckily, the judge, unlike Petraeus, actually had the child’s welfare at heart and ruled against Khawam.

None of Petraeus’s recent history would matter were it not completely at odds with everything we knew about him prior to Election Day. As you go back through the many profiles that proliferated once he was center stage in Iraq, you hear mainly of his exacting scholarliness, his push-up contests and five-mile runs with his bros in the press corps, and his straight-arrow personal style. Some of the praise heaped on Petraeus was written by the same journalists and pundits who promoted the Iraq misadventure in the first place and saw in the cool intellectual general and his surge a tool for rehabilitating both their own tarnished reputations and the disastrous, gratuitous war that had recklessly diverted American resources from the actual post-9/11 threat in Afghanistan. In truth, Petraeus didn’t redeem the Iraq fiasco. What the surge did accomplish, as a trustworthy soldier-scholar, Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, recently noted, was to allow the United States to “extricate itself from Iraq without having to acknowledge abject failure.” Petraeus’s subsequent tour of duty in Afghanistan, a sudden assignment after the resignation of Stanley McChrystal, and his fourteen-month tenure as CIA director accomplished far less. Finally, we are starting to learn why.

The general’s distracting adventures among the Real Housewives of Tampa on the home front were in the public domain, reported in the local press for anyone who wanted to look. No one in the national media bothered until sex and a catfight between Broadwell and Kelley entered the story. Also hiding in plain sight, and also ignored, was Broadwell’s own curious rise in the same media-think-tank Establishment that was glorifying Petraeus. All In was not actually written by Broadwell but by a Washington Post editor. A faux author, Broadwell was also a faux counterinsurgency expert: Though an Army officer, she had never been posted in a combat zone, and though she had enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard’s Kennedy School (where she first networked with Petraeus), she had been asked to leave because of substandard course work.

Her book, reworked from her lapsed dissertation, is so saccharine and idolatrous that it can only be tolerated with an insulin injection. Nonetheless, All In attracted a roster of ecstatic blurbs, still visible on the book’s Amazon page, from two Pulitzer Prize winners and boldfaced names at NBC News, CNN, the Brookings Institution, and Foreign Affairs. (The prize entry is from Tom Brokaw, describing Petraeus as “one of the most important Americans of our time, in or out of uniform.”) Sure enough, this degree of celebrity networking helped propel Broadwell into a career as a television talking head and public speaker. She paraded her dubious expertise before such august organizations as the Aspen Institute, the Concordia Summit, and the United States Chamber of Commerce—sometimes sharing the program with Bill Clinton, John McCain, and Obama Cabinet members. Like Petraeus’s other efforts to court and stroke the press, his targeted deployment of Broadwell, his most determined and devoted personal publicist, to nearly every corridor of media power helps explain how the myth of his public persona was scrupulously enforced even after his days living large in Tampa. Broadwell was so effective at insinuating herself and her message into rarefied echelons of the military-media-political complex that we should be grateful that her only causes were herself and Petraeus. She would have been a killer foreign mole.

Robert Gates, the retired secretary of Defense with a record as a genuinely modest public servant, said in the aftermath of the Petraeus scandal that “there is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgment.” That power doesn’t have to be military or governmental to stoke the sense of entitlement both Petraeus and Broadwell exemplified. What’s striking is how so many of our pumped-up heroes follow the same playbook—and how we miss the clues of their coming demise every time, until scandal inevitably strikes and the hagiographers in the press finally tell us what was visible all along to them and sometimes to us, if we’d only wanted to see it. It’s not as if nearly every juiced American athlete professing his or her innocence didn’t look like a freak. Mortenson’s real character was painfully obvious on his Stones Into Schools website, where almost all of the fifteen bullet points in a “How to Help” section were crafted to help beef up his book sales rather than build schools for girls in Central Asia (No. 2, a typical example, advised that Mortenson’s books are “a great gift for birthdays, holidays, mothers and fathers day, and celebrations”). Nor was it impossible to discern that Paterno was steadily compromising his once lofty ethical standards in the final quarter of his career by pushing professors to pass some academically shaky players and countenancing teams with ever longer criminal rap sheets. As Jonathan Mahler writes in Death Comes to Happy Valley, his powerful retrospective on this tale, JoePa defended a player accused of rape with this scenario: “He may not have even known what he was getting into … A cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Geez.”


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