It’s a story as old as the human race: a powerful older married man has an affair with a younger woman, his indiscretions are discovered, and his career comes crashing down.
The latest example, of course, is former CIA director and four-star general David Petraeus, who resigned after his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, was discovered. Petraeus, 60, apparently began his affair with Broadwell, 40, shortly after he resigned from the Army, and the affair continued during his service as CIA director until it ended four months ago. The affair became public when the FBI began investigating whether Broadwell had violated federal cyber-harassment laws by sending threatening anonymous e-mails to another woman. During the investigation, the FBI traced the e-mails to Broadwell’s computer, where they found explicit and salacious e-mails between Petraeus and Broadwell that evidenced their affair.
Petraeus, who has been married to his wife Holly for 38 years, regrets his indiscretions and says he showed “extremely poor judgment” in having the affair. No kidding! He not only betrayed his vows to his long-time wife, he also could have jeopardized classified information given his critical role at the CIA and his access to top-secret information. Fortunately for Petraeus and everyone else, there is no sign that his tryst with Broadwell compromised national security.
Why do some powerful older men act so stupidly and recklessly? Is it vanity, or a belief that they are beyond reproach, or is it just that they aren’t thinking at all — at least, not with the right body parts? After the public disclosure, and the ritual actions of apology and contrition by the disgraced individual are played out, it’s tough to ferret out what really motivates such actions.
It’s a lesson for the rest of us, too. Behind the carefully controlled and cultivated public image of powerful people, a silly, embarrassing inner adolescent may be lurking and ready to burst forth at any time. We should all keep that possibility in mind the next time we think a public figure may be perfect and we are told to implicitly trust their judgment on important matters.