The Writer and the General: What the Petraeus Affair Exposed About D.C.

Both Petraeus and Broadwell were good, maybe too good, at doing what it takes to succeed in this city.

Petraeus walks past Broadwell (rear right) at a confirmation hearing in June 2011. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Paula Broadwell and I were standing in the kitchen of my house in northwest Washington one evening last summer, and I mentioned I had met David Petraeus at a party. He had invited me out to Langley, but the public-affairs director told me afterwards that he had given it "further thought" and decided against it. "I'll talk to him about it," Broadwell said. I wondered about the way she spoke about him. She sounded awfully close to him -- closer than I am with my sources.

That evening, she seemed to have a nice time at the party, talking with an Army officer in the backyard and with other guests. Still, she seemed preoccupied. She had a lot on her mind, as it turned out. Weeks before the party, she was sending harassing emails to Jill Kelley, who was a volunteer events planner at MacDill Air Force Base and a friend of Petraeus, and also to Kelley's husband (they shared an email account). Broadwell said in her anonymous emails that Kelley was too close to Petraeus, adding that she had touched his knee under a table. Broadwell sounded jealous, or maybe she was just heart-broken.

Her affair with Petraeus, which unfolded over the past year and apparently ended in the springtime, was a mistake, and her emails showed poor judgment, to say the least. Equally troubling, she was cashing in on her relationship, gaining a national profile and speaking gigs because of her book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.

But the affair was more than just a slip-up: Instead, it revealed the complex dynamic between the military and the media and moreover exposed the human factor in a world that can seem anodyne. Military officials and journalists both try to de-personalize policy: Officers describe "kinetics," an antiseptic way to discuss killing. Journalists, too, have a way of talking about government programs that make impersonal: "The White House said," they write, and, "according to the CIA," as if these buildings, not the people who were inside of them, were doing things.

Yet people, not institutions, formulate policies, as well as carry them out and write about them; they are sometimes good at their jobs, sometimes not, and that element gets lost in the coverage. These people, both in the military and in the media, are prey to ordinary frailties -- among government officials, for example, the desire to show off is palpable (Washington is the only town I have ever lived in where classified information is used as a pickup line); for journalists, the compulsion to seduce is equally strong.

Journalists need to have access to top government officials in order to write their stories. If they don't get an interview, the story may not run. This means that journalists are under extraordinary pressure to develop sources and to get them to talk, particularly now that publications are shrinking, with fewer inches allocated for articles about the military and intelligence agencies. Competition for this space is intense, and journalists will go to great lengths to get access.

People often assume that it is easier to get access and to gather information about government programs when you are a woman. Indeed, the seduction story is as old as time itself, a biblical tale, but it is a fantasy. In reality, being a woman only gets you so far. Female journalists attract the attention of top officials -- as a woman, you stand out in this crowd, regardless of what you look like, but when officials open up, it is almost always with other men. If they do confide to a woman, the boundaries become blurred.

Presented by

Tara McKelvey, a fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, is a correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War.

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