Paula Broadwell Depicted as Ambitious and Inappropriate

In this Jan. 15, 2012 photo, Paula Broadwell, author of the David Petraeus biography
Photo: T. Ortega Gaines

It will likely be a while before the world hears from Paula Broadwell, whose affair with David Petraeus led to the CIA director’s Friday resignation. Broadwell — who was reportedly  in Virginia celebrating her 40th birthday with her husband, two children, and some friends when the story broke — has so far ignored the now countless requests from reporters to comment on the situation. Of course, her silence has done nothing to stunt the emerging (and unsurprisingly negative) media portrait of her as both an aggressive striver and a lovesick woman whose inappropriate behavior was unfitting of her boyfriend’s status. 

By all accounts, Broadwell is a “lifelong high-achiever.” Both a prom queen and valedictorian in high school, she went on to West Point, where she was ranked first in her class for overall fitness. After that, she earned a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (where she first met Petraeus in 2006) and served in the Army for a decade, working as a counterintelligence officer in multiple countries. In 2009, she and her family moved into a five-bedroom home in Dilworth, an upscale suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, where neighbors described her as a devoted mother to her two young sons. In her free time, she mentors friends’ daughters, regularly goes on 20-mile bike rides and eight-mile runs, and raises money for veterans support groups. “She’s kind of energetic, but not boisterous,” said one neighbor. “She’s quiet.” On her now-deleted website, Broadwell repeatedly referred to herself as “driven.” 

But while many saw Broadwell as indisputably competent, others have criticized her as out-of-her-depth — at least when it came to her work with Petraeus. Her 400-page biography of the general was roundly dismissed as a “valentine” when it was released, and she was open about her close relationship with her subject, as well as her admiration for him. “Petraeus once joked I was his avatar,” she told the Charlotte Observer last year. When Broadwell made a promotional appearance on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart summed up the book by asking her, “I would say the real controversy here is, is he awesome or incredibly awesome?”

An Afghan policy expert who met Broadwell while she was researching the project in Kabul told the Washington Post, “She was relentlessly pro-Petraeus. There was no room for a conversation of shortcomings of the Petraeus theology. She wasn’t a reporter. She struck me as an acolyte.” Indeed, Broadwell had no prior experience as an author, a fact that some Patraeus aides now say they found odd. “Her credentials didn’t add up,” said one former staff member. “I was underwhelmed. It was surprising to me that she was his official biographer.” 

Sill others have taken issue with her appearance. “Her fashionable look fit no Army officer stereotype,” noted the Charlotte Observer. “She favored sleeveless outfits that showed off toned, muscular arms.” A general who worked with Petraeus claims that her clothing choices —  which often included “tight shirts and pants” — were a problem in Afganistan. “She was seemingly immune to the notion of modesty in this part of the world,” he said. 

There’s also the matter of the “harassing” emails Broadwell sent to Jill Kelley, a 37-year old State Department military liaison and “friend” of the general who “saw him often,” according to the AP. Kelley was reportedly so disturbed by the content of the emails that she sought help from the FBI, whose investigation eventually led to the uncovering of the affair. “Rawwwr — she’s got claws!” reported the New York Post, which quoted an anonymous government source who said, “[Broadwell] clearly thought something was going on” between Petraeus and Kelley. The official also claimed that the emails contained lines such as “I know what you did,” “back off,” and “stay away from my guy.” 

Broadwell’s decision to go after Kelley online is almost definitely one she already regrets, considering the effect it had on the career of someone to whom she was clearly devoted — not to mention her own life. And her actions certainly fit neatly into the the media narrative of an aggressive, obsessive woman whose access to a powerful man went to her head. That impression will only solidify in the coming days, and will likely persist at  least until she gives her account of the relationship and the events that followed — and possibly beyond that (assuming she even decides to speak.) Meanwhile, Petraeus — who, in addition to being perhaps the country’s most respected general, has long been considered a particularly ambitious and media-savvy careerist — is still somehow coming across as the perfect gentleman. The political and military worlds have expressed nothing but “shock” over the “poor judgement” of such an otherwise “honorable” guy. “I spent a lot of time with him, and I never heard him say, ‘Wow, she was hot,’” said one surprised former aide. “I never recalled hearing him say anything crass or even mentioning the good looks of a person.” It’s a good thing that there are plenty of people willing to do that for him. 

Broadwell Depicted as Aggressive and Unhinged