The Wisdom of Paula Broadwell

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As his now-notorious biographer noted months ago, David Petraeus is only "human at the end of the day."

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Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Leave it to Paula Broadwell to explain David Petraeus -- and inadvertently underscore why the screechy response to their dalliance is so obtuse. "He's human at the end of the day" is how she put it last January during a Chicago interview for her Petraeus homage, All In.

During a lengthy conversation on WTTW, the primary PBS affiliate in Chicago, Broadwell was asked about the impact of Petraeus on the U.S. military. She argued that it would be on the next generation of leaders influenced by what she tagged as his "soldier-scholar-athlete" model.

He had displayed what "a transformational leader he is," she said, then pointedly adding this: "He's not without fault obviously. He's human at the end of the day."

And so he was, especially given how they were apparently in the middle of their affair as she spoke. It still raises the question as to why we're so transfixed and titillated by their relationship and why the CIA chief had to quit.

"American exceptionalism is really a level of puritanical standards we know don't apply to most people," says an acerbic Colin Greer, a Scotsman and educator who runs the New York-based New World Foundation, which pursues a politically liberal agenda.

"Even in the Catholic Church, almost nobody meets the standards we put up when confronted with reality," said Greer, an ideological counterpart to former Education Secretary William Bennett, who wrote "The Book of Virtues," a set of moral tales from a distinctly conservative perspective.

It is interesting how we punish those prominent figures when such conduct goes public, even as we don't seem to have much of a societal commitment to change such behavior. But ours remains a culture that often breeds greed, voyeurism, and jealousy of the achievements of others.

And so when the mighty fall, many of us feel a certain pleasure amid our moralizing condescension; all the more so if they're among the American ruling elite.

Even some of our level-headed commentators seem to have gone off track, albeit in different ways, over all this sex stuff.

"Yeah, I basically have a French attitude toward this sort of thing," said ever-sensible New York Times columnist David Brooks on NPR's "ALL Things Considered."

"I think we should, you know, it's a personal thing and we should let very talented people serve publicly even if they've done shameful things because there are not that many talented people," said Brooks. "When you're head of the CIA, it's a little different and so I guess he did have to step down."

Brooks got it partly right. What he seemingly missed is that the French would not think of the behavior as shameful, as Greer notes. "It's private decision-making. It's not that the French would deem it shameful and ignore it. They don't deem it shameful."

Yes, he was head of the Central Intelligence Agency. He knew a lot of secrets we wouldn't want divulged. But there's no evidence -- at least not yet -- that those secrets were compromised or that, like James Bond, he was hitting the sack with alluring ladies working for an enemy.

"If it's a national security issue, deal with it as national security, not adultery," said Greer. "If Petraeus left because he felt he didn't honor his own code, one must respect that personal code. But he shouldn't be driven from office."

As an educator, Greer contends that from our earliest years, schooling is, for good and bad, about public behavior. He sees nursery teachers who tell parents that their kids are too strong as classroom leaders.

His point is that we're always trying to hide who we are for some public purpose, even if there's no proof that such an inclination itself serves any purpose.

In Politico, my old friend Roger Simon argued that both Broadwell and Petraeus acted like idiots or, as he called them, "Dumb and Dumber."

And, for sure, they were rather inept, especially in sending what appear to be indiscreet and even taunting emails.

But so what? What does that tell us? Here's underscoring the obvious: Relationships are big traps for humans. It can be terribly easy to turn our backs to the world and forget it's there -- and then do crazy things while we're in the throes of various passions and self-delusions.

There's a prominent and famous fellow who's worked in high-profile positions in the administrations of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Back in the Clinton era, this married guy's personal life was a mess, and he had the hots for a friend of mine.

I was working in Washington at the time and, trust me, he verged on obsessive, including grasping late-night phone calls.

The disjuncture between his public image and what I learned about him through my friend was cavernous. It was, dare I say, a bit Petraeus-like.

I initially found it all pathetic and hypocritical, given his rather pristine image and important government role. But now, a smidgen wiser, I agree with Greer that we err in "believing that prestige, pedigree, and power make people different from the bell curve which describes the species on any measure you care to name."

Broadwell at least got that right.

One can stipulate that Patraeus was maladroit, as those nonchalant French might put it. But a truly accomplished public servant was also just human, which is why should have cut him some slack and stop the finger-wagging.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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