The military-Freudian complex

Petraeus’ affair with Broadwell cannot logically be attributed to the power of his position

Over the course of the past week, the sudden downfall of CIA Director David Petraeus sparked controversy when it became known that he resigned because of the revelation of his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

And like all publicized broken celebrity marriages, this one’s been dominating the news with all the most recent developments of secret emails, phone calls and speculation of “close friends” and colleagues.

While I follow the news with the rest of the nation, I can’t help but wonder what exactly it is about extramarital affairs that scandalize us so much. The tabloid-like coverage of public officials, albeit humanizing, seems almost insignificant to their professional reputations, especially in the case of Petraeus, an accomplished four-star General who, in the words of the Deseret News, “was a gifted military leader who left his mark on two administrations.”

But for some, the scandal is just that. The public disclosure of another affair has gotten critics like Lisa Belkin of the Huffington Post making the inevitable connection between “sex” and “power.” More important than the reason, however, was the lens through which Belkin and countless others have been viewing the affair.

Because Belkin is not the only one. Several journalists and news correspondents have been assessing Petraeus’ relationship with Broadwell from a distinctively unprofessional distance. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker even stated that it somehow seems “fair to question Petraeus’ judgment, ethics and moral fibre in this matter,” despite the fact that “there were no crimes.”

So what’s the takeaway? It seems that above all the matters of professional reputation and national security, the Petraeus incident is drawing significant attention on the fact that it is “immoral” in a Biblical sense. Of course, there is coverage on both perspectives, but speculation — and worse, judgments — about the inner workings of the affair are overwhelmingly redolent of a Taylor Swift break-up.

And in the midst of these judgments, the most unsettling of all is the unfounded projection of a “power dynamic” being the primary cause of the affair. When Belkin asks, “What is it about powerful men and sex?” she argues that in the case of Petraeus, the correlation must be a causation.

Of course, there probably was an ancient primal parallel between power and sex — Henry Kissinger famously stated, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” But the logic stops there. Any journalist could tell you that the notion of an affair based on “power” is unfair to conclude in Petraeus’ case. Because with him and countless other public officials, the enormous power — like everything else — is one of the many circumstance that coexisted with the affair.

And while we’re on the topic of power, it’s key to remember that though Petraeus was comparatively powerful to Broadwell, there isn’t enough to conclude that a simple power dynamic — even if it was subconscious — could have acted as the motivation. In reality, both parties were responsible for the ramifications of the affair, both took part in endangering national security and most notably both are incredibly powerful and accomplished individuals.

What’s more, there’s the question of publicity. The public likes to hear about the misdoings of powerful people, but more importantly, they’re more likely to hear about the misdoings of powerful people. And although it’s against human nature to think logically about it, it isn’t fair to conclude that Petraeus, Broadwell or anybody else would not have acted the same under different circumstances, or even in the absence of power.

But when logic doesn’t get in our way, it is natural for us to be dazzled by public affairs, and just as natural to make generalizations about them. And by the looks of the current news scene, I’m confident that more details on the Petraeus scandal will be leaked in the weeks to come. As citizens and viewers, however, we should be careful to take this incident as exactly what it is — a personal mistake with huge consequences, none of which can be oversimplified.

Denise Taylor’s column normally appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

related stories