Suckers for Superheroes

Photo: Eddie Mulholland/Rex Features/AP

The carnival has moved on, but many are still mystified why David Petraeus abruptly abdicated his seat of power after a mere marital lapse. Even some Republicans who once flayed Bill Clinton over Monica were magnanimous to Petraeus, seeing no reason why his disloyalty to his wife should sully his reputation as a loyal patriot. So what was the real story? Benghazi? Classified documents stashed in Paula Broadwell’s mess kit?

I adhere to a less sexy explanation. Once the country learned that the man in charge of guarding the nation’s secrets was too inept to hide his own, his directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency could no longer pass the laugh test. Petraeus will always be remembered as the Spy Who Trusted Gmail. But let’s not waste tears on him. Adultery is no bar to pursuing other venerable Washington callings, most particularly the Senate and the House. With the Beltway fixer Robert Barnett by his side, Petraeus will soon better the six-figure advance Broadwell received for All In, even if his chances of improving on her title are approximately nil.

Perhaps it’s the country we should be a bit concerned about instead. What’s really shocking about the Petraeus affair is not Petraeus’s affair but the fact that once again, we were taken in by a secular plaster saint who turns out to bear only a faint resemblance to the image purveyed by the man himself and the mass media that abetted his self-glorification. (There were at least three book-length hagiographies before Broadwell’s and three Newsweek covers too.) The toppling of King David, as the Petraeus fanboys anointed him, is just the latest in a string of such flameouts. He was directly preceded, more grievously, by the disgraced sports legends Lance Armstrong and Joe Paterno and by the memoirist Greg Mortenson, whose best-selling Three Cups of Tea was spiked with derring-do fiction to sate his own thirst for money and self-promotion along with the professed goal of championing education for Muslim girls in remote corners of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Though we’ve also lived of late through the scandals of the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball, the unmasking of mega­ministers and Wall Street titans, and the penile pratfalls of John Edwards and Tiger Woods, our serial susceptibility to bogus heroes and their hoaxes remains undiminished. It’s as if there’s something in the national DNA that makes us suspend disbelief once our icons are anointed. You’d think in our digital age, when everyone can seemingly find out anything about anyone in a nanosecond—when transparency, thy name is Twitter—this pattern would have long since been broken and the country wouldn’t be so easily snowed. Instead, our credulousness seems as entrenched as ever, if not more so, with the same myopia by the press and public alike recurring with scant variation, whether the instance be as chilling as Paterno or as farcical as Petraeus.

As toppled heroes go, Petraeus is more tacky than tragic, more silly than sinister. He committed no crime, and since he was neither a preacher nor a public moralist, he is innocent of hypocrisy. Yet it is precisely the preposterously stark contrast between the cheesiness of the Petraeus we are now discovering and the gravity of the Petraeus we were sold that makes him so instructive a case study for this kind of national fraud. Let’s not forget that this was a man who was entrusted by two presidents with the most solemn duty in our national life—the running of two of the longest wars in American history. When George W. Bush turned to him to take over Iraq in 2007, it was in part to inject a serene, Ike-ish hero, however tardily, into an unpopular war. Bush branded Petraeus as his “main man,” plugging him incessantly in public, and Petraeus was happy to play the role to the hilt. After the grotesqueries of Donald Rumsfeld, Abu Ghraib, and all the rest, much of the public, at least that part of it that hadn’t tuned out the war altogether, bought into it as well. Soon, Republicans—stoked by Roger Ailes and Fox News—were talking about him for the presidency.

Even commentators who were critical of Petraeus’s warcraft rarely questioned his seriousness or maturity. Now it turns out that the man who had come to symbolize the ideal of a modern general—a Princeton-educated warrior-scholar who wrote the book on counterinsurgency—was actually closer in character to the preening Modern Major-General of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. We learned this not from the initial bombshell of his infidelity, a misdemeanor that indeed should be left to the jurisdiction of his immediate family, but from the larger, embarrassing backstory that has been filled in since. Belatedly, we now know that a leader heralded for his asceticism was so entranced with pomp, especially of the self-aggrandizing variety, that he gratuitously paraded his military medals on his civilian suit jacket in breach of Washington etiquette. We now know that in the Central Command Shangri-La of Tampa, he commandeered a 28-cop-strong motorcycle escort to speed him to a party at the waterfront mansion of the alleged “socialites” Scott and Jill Kelley. The motorcade was the Petraeus surge replayed as farce, deployed to achieve victory in the status wars presided over by central Florida’s answer to the Kardashians. For once we can say unequivocally, “Mission accomplished!”

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.”

In the instances of Armstrong and Paterno, the media cheerleaders were far better writers than Broadwell. But their paper trails are no less cringe-inducing, particularly when you factor in that Armstrong, a lying, doping bully who used physical, financial, and legal intimidation to silence the keepers of his secrets, and Paterno, the cowardly protector of a serial child rapist, were guilty of far worse offenses than Petraeus’s peccadillos. Unlike Petraeus, they committed their sins not in the context of brave service to their country but in the desire to protect the fortune and glory they had amassed in sports. Yet just days before the already much-compromised Paterno was to face news of Jerry Sandusky’s arrest in November 2011, Stewart Mandel, a Sports Illustrated online columnist, could still write that “we should still salute him” because “in a sport filled with misguided, misbehaved or flat-out devious individuals, ­JoePa remains our moral compass, as he has for more than five decades.”* Another typical journalistic enabler, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, wrote two books in collaboration with Armstrong to gild his image and also served as one of Paterno’s last defenders. “Try to forgive Joe Paterno” was the lead of her column last November in which she labored to absolve him by accusing her own readers of being just as morally obtuse: “Unfortunately, the truth is, youth coaches from California to Rhode Island have molested children at every level, sandlot to USA Swimming, and we hardly ever recognize the pervert. We usually shake his hand.” She would change her tune and condemn Paterno histrionically following the release of the Freeh report, well after the country had turned against him. She has yet to be as harsh in judgment about her “friend and colleague” Armstrong.

Jenkins and other Armstrong defenders frequently argue that he deserves special dispensation because his cancer charity, Livestrong, has raised some $350 million. Revealingly, conspicuous charity is a common element in all these cases. The Kelleys of Tampa tried to accrue social status with their scantly funded “foundation” for terminal cancer patients. Sandusky worked tirelessly for his youth charity, the Second Mile, that also came in handy for rounding up potential rape victims. Paterno’s defenders were vociferous in citing all the money JoePa raised for Penn State, including millions for that most unimpeachable of university causes, the library (to which Paterno was happy to affix his name). No one was more beneficent than Mortenson, who under legal threat has agreed to repay his charity, the Central Asia Institute, the more than $1 million that he skimmed for expenses and what the Montana attorney general labeled “inappropriate personal charges.” (Like Broadwell, Mortenson is also a faux author and tried to pin the fictions in Three Cups of Tea on his billed co-author, David Oliver Relin, who committed suicide at age 49 the week before Thanksgiving.)

However worthy their goals, these charitable enterprises also served as invaluable beards for our heroes’ more repellent activities. The independent-­minded journalists and bloggers who dared break with the pack and take on Armstrong and Mortenson had to risk criticism that they were impeding cancer research and denying Muslim girls in the Third World an education. But charity does not balance the ledger on Paterno, Armstrong, and Mortenson’s corruption anymore than it mitigates the criminal insider-trading charges against Rajat Gupta, the former Goldman Sachs director and McKinsey head who tried (and failed) to avoid a prison sentence this fall by enlisting testimonials to his good works from Kofi Annan and Bill Gates. Livestrong and the Central Asia Institute can only benefit from the removal of their founders.

There are various motives for press complicity in some of these ill-fated heroic narratives, starting with hunger for access to newsmakers. (The dying Paterno granted his last interview to Sally Jenkins.) Some of us just can’t resist a great story, so much so that we forget to ask the Journalism 101 question of whether it might be too good to be true. Among Armstrong apologists, the most honest in confronting that impulse may be Andrew Corsello of GQ, who was struggling in the summer of 2010 over how to acknowledge and yet somehow bat away the persuasive doping accusations made by Armstrong’s former teammate (and fellow doper) Floyd Landis. Corsello’s moral parsing is hooey, but his spewing-out of his internal conflict is kind of fabulous as he tries both to protect a heroic narrative against his growing doubts and to rationalize his hero’s crime even while granting no such leeway to baseball dopers like Barry Bonds. Not content to praise Armstrong’s comeback-from-­cancer story as the “greatest in the history of sports,” Corsello reaches for the cosmic: “Its measure of suffering and heart and improbability and internationality and redemption and most of all purity elevates it to the level of archetype and parable. It is aesthetically perfect … The story creates a relationship between him and the world that is qualitatively different from that of any baseball, football, or track god ever suspected of being a dope cheat. The story is shot through with magic—a magic we use to suspend our disbelief.”

*This article has been edited since publication to clarify the timing of Stewart Mandel’s Sports Illustrated post.

Even if you have zero sympathy or tolerance for Armstrong—and that would be me—the self-deluding Corsello nakedly animates that fundamental piece of the American character that makes us want to suspend disbelief well past the point we should. We want to believe in magic, improbable comebacks, and aesthetically perfect heroes. We hold on to the frontier ideal of white hats vanquishing the black hats. If there’s one fixture in the American firmament—no matter how sweeping the other changes in cultural fashion—it is cartoon superheroes. Nearly 75 years after the first Superman comic, he and his brethren are bigger than ever, the masters of all media, analog and digital. We are always waiting for Superman and quick to assume there’s a new one just around the corner. When one turns out to be a fake, we immediately start looking for the next.

Perhaps it was always thus. Herman Melville closed down his career as a novelist with his dark satire The Confidence-Man just before the Civil War. When F. Scott Fitzgerald published his romantic yet cautionary Ur-text for great American charlatans, The Great Gatsby, in 1925, the country was still reeling from a national shock that mirrors many of those of our own day. Warren Harding, a beloved (and handsome) president whose sudden death in office in 1923 produced a national outpouring of grief worthy of Lincoln, had been posthumously exposed as an enabler of White House corruption on a staggering scale. But we picked ourselves up and have fallen for countless frauds like Harding—and Gatsby—ever since. We can be as easily fooled by small-scale hoaxes like “balloon boy” as we are by big-time crooks like the lionized Enron CEO Ken Lay. Even fictional impostors, from Professor Marvel to Harold Hill to Dick Whitman (a.k.a. Don Draper), are beloved lodestars in our national mythology. So while it would be nice to believe that we’ve learned something from our mistakes and would not be sucked in by the next Petraeus or JoePa or Edwards or Armstrong, whom are we kidding? This is America, and, if Broadwell got anything right, it’s that once Americans fall for a guy, we just can’t stop ourselves from going all in.

Suckers for Superheroes