WMC News & Features

Behind the Headlines—Sharing the Spotlight with David Petraeus

220Px Paula Broadwell

The judgment of the media falls unevenly on the primary players in the soap opera that has engulfed the nation, as a WMC co-founder explains in this commentary broadcast earlier today on Women's Media Center Live with Robin Morgan.   

Imagine an exceptional lieutenant-colonel, an intelligence officer in the Army Reserve with security clearance to classified information. An officer who graduated with honors from West Point and became a doctoral student at King's College in London and at Harvard, studying military leadership, organizational and management theories, and U.S. foreign, defense, and intelligence policies—later, winning assignments with the U.S. intelligence community, U.S. Special Operations Command, and an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. He lived, worked, or traveled in over 60 countries—in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East—during more than 15 years of military service in geopolitical analysis and counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. He also served on executive boards focused on supporting wounded warriors, veterans’ issues, women’s leadership, public-private partnerships in national security, and weapons manufacturing and distribution. 

Now, imagine him as having ‘expressive green eyes,’ ‘toned arms,’ and ‘seductively exposed armpits.’

What? You say.

The officer is real, but a woman: Lieutenant-Colonel Paula Broadwell. The demeaning, objectifying description of her is real, too.

Broadwell is the woman who wrote a biography of and allegedly had an affair with former General and until last week CIA Director David Petraeus—he who is described as a brilliant, valiant scholar-warrior, a heroic leader whose resignation, reluctantly accepted by president Obama, is mourned as a national loss on both sides of the congressional aisle. He who is 20 years Broadwell’s senior and—oh yes—he who has been married for 36 years.

The wife? Hollister "Holly" Knowlton-Petraeus is military ‘royalty,’ her heritage traced to the Revolutionary War. The daughter of the West Point superintendent when Petraeus was a cadet; her brother, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather had all enlisted. She married him and followed him, moving 23 times in three decades, raising their children as if a single mom, since he was deployed so much and so long. But she also worked as director of the Better Business Bureau’s military line, providing financial education and advice to soldiers and their wives. In 2011, now elected Senator Elizabeth Warren appointed her assistant director of service-member affairs at the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Furious would be an understatement," was the way a family friend described her to the press. She has been described in the press (traditional and new media) variously as long suffering (his lengthy deployments), too involved with her own work, and ‘frumpy,’ ergo she didn’t deserve such a godly man, and couldn’t hold on to him.

There are minor figures in this melodrama, too. Floridian Jill Kelley, termed the 'Tampa Kardashian,'  who, with her rich husband, throws lavish parties for generals—sort of a military groupie. There’s another general milling around, General John Allen, also implicated through ‘inappropriate’ emails to Jill Kelley Kardashian. (Do these people know nothing about the Internet and emails?) 

But the main characters are the big three: innocent fallen hero, wily temptress, boring, betrayed wife. 

We’ve been here before. Gingrich, serial adulterer—while busily impeaching Clinton for the dalliance with Paula Jones—oops no Gennifer Flowers—wait no, Monica somebody. Elliot Spitzer, who paid for it, in more ways than one. John Edwards. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mark Sanford. Jim McGreevey, who violated his marriage with a difference, the difference being another man.

We’ve been here so often that this plot has its own TV series, The Good Wife. News so old that it’s shocking how trite and sexist the coverage still largely is.

First cliché, it’s not his fault. From the Washington Post’s portrait of Petraeus as “the consummate gentleman and family man” who "let his guard down” (poor passive babykins), to always reliable what-would-we-do-without-him Pat Robertson on how Broadwell must have initiated the affair that Petraeus was powerless to resist. Petraeus’ conduct was understandable, Robertson says,  because “the man’s off in a foreign land and he’s lonely and here’s a good-looking lady throwing herself at him. He’s a man.”

Second cliché, it’s the mistress’s fault. She’s a siren, “a shameless self-promoting prom queen,” as a former colleague of Petraeus told the press. A Jezebel “willing to take full advantage of her special access” to him—Washington Post. Her attractiveness, her clothing, her old interviews are pored over and re-aired for double entendre effect. Remember that this is the exemplary officer described at the beginning.

Third cliché, it’s the wife’s fault. Though a mother of two and a distinguished financial advocate for military wives, she now faces the press capitalizing on her public humiliation as the victimized wife. She is also publicly scrutinized for being older, plumper, and plainer than Broadwell.

Either way, clearly the women are to blame.

I know. The story has pizzazz. Sex, uniforms, power, and the CIA. But could we finally lose the dreary stereotypes?

Furthermore, could we dedicate just a fraction of the salacious coverage this story is garnering to consistent coverage of military sexual trauma, and of sexual assault inflicted on military women by their fellow soldiers or superiors? Or how about consistent exposure of a military culture that assumes furloughs and shore leaves include brothel visits in, say, Southeast Asia where the “girls” are 11 and 12 year old children?

Meanwhile, stay tuned. This story isn’t disappearing soon. It has, as they say, legs. And they not shapely, either.

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Robin Morgan
Co-founder. Women's Media Center, Host & Producer of WMC Live with Robin Morgan, Writer, Activist
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