The General And The Showgirl
Other than the adolescent titillation over the title of the book “All In,” why am I obsessed with the Paula Broadwell/Gen. David Petraeus scandal? For one thing, it’s a continuing powder keg on the highest level, with so many plot twists that even one of the writers on “Law & Order: SVU” complained on Twitter that he’s having a hard time keeping up. Others on Twitter are already casting the movie. And the woman who complained about the anonymous emails -- Jill Kelley, the “Honorary Consul General” in Tampa and "Real Housewife" wannabe -- has hired Judy Smith, the fixer behind the TV show “Scandal,” whose former client was Monica Lewinsky.
Yeah, it’s a giant embarrassment. And two of the things that got Petraeus in trouble were his attachments to email and the limelight. Most people were amazed to read that the G-man and his Broadwell-Boswell used a regular old Gmail account as a dropbox, leaving their sexy time notes in the “draft” folder for the other to pick up, so as to leave less of a trail. That’s a trick used by Al Qaeda as well as many American teenagers, the AP pointed out. (You have to wonder what kinds of ads ran next to their posts.) Even weirder was the fact that Broadwell, now playing the part of the paranoid shrew, sent her reported “Back off, hussy -- who do you think you are?”-type emails to the CentCom-centered-Kelley from a joint account that she kept with her husband.
More seriously, this scandal has led several military writers to reassess the General’s general ease with the press, and his penchant for career (rather than nation) building. Military writers formerly drawn into his circle now feel betrayed. Instead of myth building, they will no doubt take the gloves off and offer newly frank views of The Surge, and whether the General’s signature idea of counterinsurgency actually succeeded.
In that context, it’s more understandable that the General, despite his immense influence and august place in history, chose a fellow fitness freak and worshipful West Point graduate with no journalistic experience to be his official biographer. That way, he could ensure that it would be a hagiography.
There’s unintended comedy in the photo promoting “All In.” Staged and awkward, the two aggressively face the camera and smile. Petraeus is in camo fatigues, Broadwell in a tight, shiny blouse, with a tight, shiny forehead. And while the couple are nominally shaking hands, she appears to be crushing his mitt.
On her media tour promoting the book last January, Broadwell dressed the vamp. She appeared on “The Daily Show,” where Jon Stewart (now famously) asked her whether the takeaway of her book was “Is he awesome? Or incredibly awesome?” And it was brought up that in high school, the General was called “Peaches.”
She wore a sleeveless black silk top that emphasized her awesome, triathlon-toned guns and shoulders; thus, Stewart’s interview was mostly clavicle-based. Certainly, for a first-time author appearing on such an important show, she strong-armed Stewart, and didn’t seem nervous at all. Au contraire, she repeatedly gave him two thumbs-up, as if he needed her approval.
The interview includes a moment that in hindsight seems painful, when Stewart asks Broadwell if Petraeus will run for president. Broadwell: “He isn’t. My husband wants me to say he is, because it’ll sell more books. Sorry, honey,” she says to her radiologist husband, Scott, who is in the audience. Could she have made a more public showing of her intimate knowledge of the General -- and choosing him over her hubby?
In the extra Internet-only part of the interview, Broadwell takes part in a push-up competition with Stewart and her husband, with the loser donating to her charity for wounded veterans. The double emasculation was effortless. Stewart purposely played the asthmatic nebbish to Broadwell’s disciplined Olympian -- but managed to grind out 30-something pushups, and then faux-collapsed and got up, as did Scott Broadwell. Without breaking a sweat on her satin blouse, Broadwell did 60, and then looked up and asked, “Should I stop now?”
On “Charlie Rose,” she wore a pink silk top with one side slipping off her shoulder the entire time. Guests normally appear on this show in business wear, and her gossamer top was very distracting, making it hard not to stare at her shoulder and neck while she was speaking. Was this her M.O. -- to blind her admirers with an unexpected mix of come-hitherishness and military precision?
It hardly seemed business as usual for Charlie, who had invited a CBS reporter who had interviewed Petraeus to join them, as if he needed a wingman. It didn’t matter -- neither of them got to say much. Broadwell had a never-ending stream of robo-speak, stuff like “So I began to write an intellectual history exploring how he'd developed his role as a maverick who galvanized organizational innovation."
This young woman spoke for him, a commander of 150,000 troops, as calmly and fluidly as if she were discussing what her kindergartner likes to eat for breakfast. Both men seemed stunned, afraid to break her spell. It wasn’t about his leadership in two long and deadly wars -- it was about her shoulder.
What will happen next is anyone’s guess. Conspiracy theories about Benghazi abound.
In the end, they are just two charming, competitive, careerist-narcissists on their own private power trip. Viewed as a clandestine love affair, Petwell (the Brangelina-like moniker my friend Lisa Birnbach has given it) is the oldest story in the book. Except now the book is digital, and the world is one big angry interweb.