Opinion: My Afternoon with Petraeus

Jami Floyd interviews Gen. David Petraeus at the White House in October.

Not two weeks ago, I met David Petraeus. I "interviewed" the general, in his capacity as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for the "White House Fellows" annual Leadership Conference in Washington. I write interview in quotes because the substance of our annual meetings is off the record; but the fact of our meeting is not. So, I can report that I spent well over two hours with General Petraeus, first in the so-called Green Room, and then on stage, in close proximity to this famous, and now infamous, man.

I make it a professional point not to make judgments about the people I am about to interview. I don’t like them or dislike them, as much as I can help it, until after our conversation. My job is simply to elicit answers to my pointed questions so that my audience can form an opinion. It is not for me to do the opining. 

But some things cannot be ignored. For one thing, General Petraeus did something few others do: He arrived on time. On the dot. He was very unassuming for so important a person, with a very small entourage. Just two secret service agents, a small number, I thought for Director of the CIA, post 9/11. No secretary, no aide-de-camp, no biographer.

Then demeanor. The general was more personable than other military men I’ve interviewed. It was as if we’d met many times before, though we never had. I thought to myself, This man could run for president, and made a mental note to ask him if he had that intention.

Of course, the retired general has long been known for his skillful courtship of journalists. Some would call it an affair with the press. That carefully developed relationship, I think it’s fair to say, brought him a career's worth of favorable headlines and has, perhaps, softened the coverage of his fall from grace. Petraeus accomplished this in part by granting reporters access. That is how he met biographer Paula Broadwell, after all, when she initiated a case study of his leadership.

A few days later, the news of their affair broke. Had there been a hint? I reflected. Agitation? None. Distraction? Not at all. If this scandal was brewing when we met, either David Petraeus knew nothing of it, or he’s the coolest customer around.

As for the affair itself, other than the fact that he’s a male, and he’s been married 38 years, there was nothing to suggest it. He’d seemed so disciplined. All that exercise. And he was not at all flirtatious in the way of most Washington men. He was crisp, focused, all business. In a word: military.

But here we are, with a baffling and bizarre turn of events, a Shakespearean scandal that now apparently leads to the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Most Americans are asking themselves, What on earth happened?! But not me. Because nothing surprises me anymore. Every few months, it seems, we hear of some politically powerful person caught up in a scandal:

Truly. How can one be surprised after we’ve lived through the sordid affairs of Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer. Mark Sanford. Anthony Weiner. John Edwards. Herman Cain. Arnold Schwarzenegger. DSK.

I mean, really. The list is so long that I can’t possibly name them all here. And just take a moment to recall the tawdry facts associated with some of these stories: The blue dress, Client No. 9, the underwear photos, allegations of rape in a hotel room, one baby born to the nanny and another born to a mistress while the cheating man’s wife is dying of cancer.

Then there are the institutions irreparably harmed by flawed leaders and their lapses of judgment: The Catholic Church. The Boy Scouts. Penn State. The U.S. Military. The White House.

As a journalist, I have covered countless cases of politicians brought down by scandal. In the last year alone, I have participated in myriad panels and have given several talks on the topic. The title changes slightly, with each new iteration; but the theme is always the same: Leaders losing sight of their mission, brought down because of sex, power and hubris.

An 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people with power are more likely to cheat than the average person. In a large, anonymous survey of 1,561 professionals, the researchers found that power is linked to confidence, and those with high confidence tend to stray. Among the powerful, with more men than women in positions of power, most adulterers were male. But I have a different theory that goes beyond just the numbers. And it comes from my short time studying and reflecting on David Petraeus.

While the Petraeus story is still evolving and may turn out to be about much more than just good sex, the retired general himself may give us a window into of root cause of this recurring problem. As a boy, David Howell Petreaus was no doubt taught to be strong, tough, domineering and aggressive. These are the messages we give all American boys, first through Disney fairy tales and later in tales of war.

War stories and macho mythology would be better if tempered by the message that it is okay to cry, to feel vulnerable and to treat girls and women with respect. But we teach none of these things. Instead, boys with outsize talent – like David Petraeus -- grow into men who are emotionally unprepared for the kind of power they ultimately realize. 

As the mother of a young son, I believe we must redefine what means to be a man. We must dig deep into the American psyche to confront the old ways in which we have been raising our sons. By now, we should certainly understand that the bad behavior of these great men is painful not only to their wives and children, but to the constituencies they serve – constituencies in desperate need of leadership. And these are times that call for leadership. 

When I met General Petraeus I thought I was in the presence of a great leader. Perhaps I was. But that leadership has been entirely undone. Until Friday, Petraeus had a glittering career. He was a four-star general lauded as the architect of the US counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Now he is disgraced and impotent. We’ve got to do better, for the sake of our country. It is time for us to grow up, as a country of boys, and men.