I have a great idea whom Barack Obama should nominate as his next CIA director: Gen. David Petraeus. With that simple announcement, Obama could strike a blow for civil liberties and against the silly and destructive sexual Puritanism that has taken down so many public figures. Since Petraeus’ departure both Democrats and Republicans have been mourning the loss of a public servant of extraordinary ability.
So let’s mourn no more. The president can say that when news of Petraeus’ affair first broke he reluctantly accepted the general’s resignation. But as it has become clear that the events were wholly of a private nature and national security was not breached, he is reinstating his CIA director. (OK, we probably have to wait until the CIA finishes its new investigation into whether Petraeus used agency resources to conduct the affair, but investigators have leaked that they don’t expect any criminal charges.)
Because Obama is a man with such a blemish-free private life, this could be a “Nixon in China” moment. It would be impossible for a Bill Clinton, say, to strike such a blow for sexual sanity. But given that even that insatiable sex fiend is back in the arena and much revered (by some), surely that means we have grown up enough to realize that just because you’re in public life doesn’t mean every aspect of your marriage is fair game. Yes, it’s been titillating to read the farcical details of Petraeus’ fling, and no one got more vicarious pleasure than I. But in the end the Petraeus so-called scandal is just the old story of a long-married man who strayed with a younger woman, a woman who unfortunately for all went a little nuts. I hope that for none of the participants it’s a marriage ender, but it certainly should not have been a career ender.
As my Slate colleague Emily Bazelon has pointed out, the real questions are not about whether Petraeus and Broadwell did it under a desk but why the FBI kept pursuing this investigation once it became clear no crime had been committed. Both Petraeus and Broadwell were interviewed by the FBI and copped to the affair. Petraeus, realizing the affair had been discovered, did not then tender his resignation. According to accounts, he didn’t think he should. He must have concluded—rightly we can now see—that the matter was and should remain private and had no bearing on his ability to discharge his duties at the CIA. (Although the secret Gmail drop he set up with Broadwell does show he’s not a master of spycraft.) It wasn’t until some days later, according to the Washington Post, that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. told him his behavior made him unfit for office.
But does it? Now that revelations about the Tampa twins and Broadwell’s mean-girl threats to her perceived romantic rival have been aired, mocked, and already forgotten, we’re left wondering why we got our pants in such a twist over Petraeus dropping his. It’s understandable that given the timing of this story—it broke just after the presidential election and was simultaneous with congressional investigations of the Benghazi debacle—it must have seemed prudent to not to let Petraeus become a new, possibly explosive, distraction. It probably was a good thing that Petraeus wasn’t fighting for his job while testifying about Benghazi.
But thanks to our ever-faster cycle of humiliation and rehabilitation, he has already been punished and paroled. It’s time to let Petraeus get back to work. It would probably even please Mrs. Petraeus to see less of him around the house right now.
Petraeus has already engaged the services of Robert Barnett, the Washington lawyer who gets former government officials seven-figure book deals. The word is that no book is planned, but surely Petraeus must want to tell his own version of his life. Let’s hope that Obama keeps Petraeus from embarking on this next chapter by asking him to return and finish the job he started.