The Petraeus Reality Show, Episode 2Margaret Carlson
Nov. 21 (Bloomberg) -- About the response to my last column, I’m of two minds, which is one too many for a columnist to have.
On the one hand, I know women are still trapped in a “Mad Men” world, where the boss gets promoted and the secretary gets fired when an affair is discovered. In politics, when a male candidate loses, he is just another failed candidate; when a female candidate loses, her defeat is somehow representative.
Four years ago, after then Senator Hillary Clinton lost to then Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary, we all had to suffer through pages of commentary about whether the party could ever afford to nominate another woman. This year, after Mitt Romney’s loss, there is no such talk about whether Republicans will ever nominate another of his kind again. His kind is pretty much the only kind they have.
The lesson: Female solidarity requires that I show understanding and sympathy with the women in the David Petraeus affair. When one woman is maligned, we all are.
On the other hand, the women of the Petraeus affair are larger than life. If a man did what Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley are accused of doing, the story line would be the same.
And Petraeus, although he’s the reason anyone is paying any attention at all, has become a cipher. Did you see pictures of him as he arrived at, or departed from, the Capitol last week to testify about Benghazi before Congress? No, you did not -- because in a rare display of bipartisanship, members of the Senate and House intelligence committees joined hands to make sure the general was whisked in and out unseen.
The lesson: The less the news media can find out about the star of the show, the more they will focus on the bit players.
This is especially true when the star has a coterie of current and past colleagues, journalists, high government officials and public-relations and legal counsel to protect him. Both Broadwell and Kelley have hired crisis managers, too. Kelley’s is so well-known for guiding the unschooled through roiling waters that there is a TV show, “Scandal,” modeled on her life.
Broadwell and Kelley flew close to the sun. The grad student with a penchant for resume inflation became the biographer and mistress of probably the most famous general since George Patton. Petraeus could have asked David McCullough to write his biography -- but he chose Paula Broadwell. She had so little experience that she had to hire a ghostwriter.
Then something happened between the general and his biographer, and the affair ended, but she had invested so much that she didn’t want anyone else to have Petraeus’s affection. So she ended up sending threatening e-mails to her romantic rival.
Her rival, as it turns out, was a doyenne of military party planning. Kelley has diplomatic inviolability, if not immunity, as she hosted dinners and fundraisers for nothing more than the chance to rub an occasional four-star elbow and get the odd e-mail answered.
Broadwell was a careerist. Kelley followed the advice of a bygone era to “hang a lamb chop in the window” to secure a place in the social firmament. Her soirees earned her passes to the White House and letters from both Petraeus and another four-star general, John Allen, in support of Kelley’s sister in a child-custody case in which the judge found her to be “psychologically unstable” and lacking “respect for the importance of honesty and integrity in her interactions.”
What kind of sisterhood would keep a female journalist from writing about all of this? Just as those “Real Housewives” (and Kelley and her sister actually appeared on an episode of a reality show) always end up scrapping with each other over the crumbs of society, Broadwell and Kelley found the headquarters of CentCom weren’t big enough for both of them. They brought each other down. It’s impossible to avert our eyes.
No, it’s not fair that Petraeus’s setback is undoubtedly temporary, like Bill Clinton’s was, while Kelley’s fate -- if not Broadwell’s -- may more closely resemble Monica Lewinsky’s. Lewinsky, you may not remember, went on to sell handbags. Clinton is merely the third-most-admired man in the whole world.
This is not to say that sexism and its despicable cousin, ageism, aren’t rampant in the coverage of women. Would anyone pound on the 70-year-old Mitch McConnell for keeping his job as minority leader of the Senate? Yet that’s what happened to 72-year-old House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week when she declined to step aside for the 73-year-old Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. When people talk about Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016, they are quick to note she will be 69 in four years, as if being the same age as Ronald Reagan when he first ran would make her impossibly old. Of course, if you believe women age in dog years, in 2016 she would be 483, which does sound kind of old.
I digress. Regarding coverage of the Petraeus affair: It’s not so much sexism rearing its ugly head as it is opportunism. Every life is interesting, if you examine it closely enough, and if you’re famous -- even temporarily, even accidentally -- you will be examined.
It is through a combination of bad judgment and bad fortune that Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley find themselves at the center of attention. It is not only because of their gender. In fact, if a powerful woman were playing the part of Petraeus in this saga, I’m confident we would be using the same microscope to examine the men fighting over her.
Instead of Paula and Jill, it would be all about Paul and Jack. What a story that will be.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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