The Wisdom of Paula Broadwell

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

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."

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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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