Let’s get a few things straight here: Paula Broadwell is not a biographer. She is not a journalist, she is not a reporter and she most certainly is not a card carrying member of the 4th Estate. For starters, how many self-respecting journalists do you know of that have to have a wingman co-write their books with them? All-In: The Education of General David Petraeus is not exactly a Woodward and Bernstein affair. It is more akin to a sports biography where you have the athlete’s name in bold type to sell copies while nestling the ghost-writer’s name underneath to let people know whose words they’re actually reading. When one picks up a copy of Shaq Uncut, it doesn’t come as a surprise that The Big Aristotle left all that pesky writing business to The Boston Globe‘s Jackie MacMullen. No one expects an affable LSU drop out with a penchant for referring to himself in the 3rd person and generally acting like a lobotomized Muhammed Ali to write a 300 page autobiography all by his lonesome. However, Broadwell is a graduate of West Point and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The fact that this self-styled biographer of General Petraeus couldn’t write a book without leaning on Washington Post Local Editor Vernon Loeb to make it presentable should have been a clue that she wasn’t exactly the woman for the job.
Just two days after his re-election, President Obama found an unexpected and undesired surprise on his desk in the form of a letter from General David Petraeus submitting his resignation as the Director of the CIA. Petraeus’s abrupt and unceremonious exit was a preemptive response to the backlash that resulted from the revelation that this consummate family man and exemplar of self-restraint had been having an affair with his “biographer”, Paula Broadwell. The affair was discovered during the course of an FBI investigation that was called after Jill Kelley, the State Department’s liaison to the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, came to the FBI claiming that Broadwell had sent her a number of threatening e-mails prompted by her own relationship with General Petraeus. At the outset of the several month long investigation, FBI officials were worried that Petraeus’s personal G-Mail account had been hacked based on the sexually graphic nature of the e-mails that they found. However, as the investigation progressed, it became clear that there was no national security threat contained within the e-mails and that they had inadvertently stumbled on an affair between the CIA Director and his biographer.
Back in January, Jon Stewart had Broadwell on The Daily Show to talk about her biography of General Petraeus in what makes for a retrospectively discomfiting interview. Stewart starts out by noting that, the real controversy contained in the book is, “is he awesome or incredibly awesome”1, and the interview is really just a sycophantic love fest on Broadwell’s part. After the sky has fallen and the subtext has been revealed, the interview now almost feels like the play-within-a-play scene in Hamlet where Hamlet intently watches his fratricidal uncle as he watches a play that reenacts the murder he has just committed, hoping to catch a glimpse of guilt in the newly-crowned King’s face. Over the course of the interview, I find myself trying to read Broadwell’s face as Stewart asks seemingly innocuous questions, searching for some hint of fear or pride or lust.
What comes across most in the interview with Stewart is Broadwell’s sense of filial duty towards and admiration for her General. On numerous occasions she mentions how Petraeus was mentoring her during the writing of the biography, characterizing their relationship as one of student and teacher rather than reporter and subject. In fact, All In began as Broadwell’s dissertation when she was at the Kennedy School of Government and only expanded into a chronicle of our generation’s most well-renowned military figure when she showed up in Afghanistan in 2010 and implanted herself in General Petraeus’s inner circle. Aides to Petraeus were stunned that the usually reserved general who normally went to great pains to sculpt his public image would allow such unfettered access to a reporter, especially a reporter who wasn’t actually a reporter. To quote Peter Mansoor, a former executive officer on Petraeus’s staff, “if you are going to have someone interview everyone who has ever touched you in your life, choose someone who has written a biography or at least a history book”.2
The whole thing just seems so very Greek. When searching for a word to encapsulate the tenor and substance of their relationship, the only word that comes immediately to mind is hubris. Both Petraeus and Broadwell are the epitome of the Type A personality, born and bred to be hyper-achieving bulldogs who view everything in life as a contest they have to win. Broadwell seems to embody all of the most negative qualities of the 21st century Western woman. She is cutthroat, merciless, insatiably ambitious and driven by power and prestige. In short, she’s a man who happens to have a vagina and a pair of breasts. But she’s not just any old type of man. She is the type of man General Petraeus has been trying to be his whole life, which is in turn the same man that is lauded in military culture as the apogee of human character. In epic terms, these two were much more Patroclus and Achilles than they were Arthur and Guinevere. The only problem is that Achilles had that heel of his. Not even a 4 star general can protect that.
Categories: US Politics