Unless you live under the proverbial rock, you have surely heard about the David Petraeus’ resignation as director of the CIA. In his resignation letter Petraeus gave the main reason for his decision as “poor judgment.” There are accusations, rumors, speculations…the internet, newspapers and television talking heads are all staying plenty busy these days with this topic. I am not by any means suggesting that it is not a serious issue, especially if there was classified information that was compromised, but it also seems to me that there is an unusual amount of “shock and awe” being directed toward this situation when compared with similar stories in U.S. history.
Apparently, Cal Thomas agrees. In an editorial entitled “Changing standards?” posted yesterday on worldmag.com, Thomas asks why Petraeus had to resign. He (correctly) points out that Bill Clinton did not resign after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Ted Kennedy never resigned despite a well-known reputation for philandering. After asking why Petraeus should have resigned, Thomas comments, “I am always amused when journalists use the words ‘sex scandal’ when writing about such things. Having abandoned most standards for what used to be called ‘upright behavior,’ culture now ‘tsk-tsks’ when someone is caught in a compromising position.”
A case-in-point would seem to be the statement made by HLN’s Kyra Phillips. As a reporter, she says she has had a good professional relationship with General Petraeus over the years, and that Petraeus and Phillips have had great mutual respect for each other. Then she said, “Needless to say, I’m shocked by his behavior.”
The Huffington Post ran an article on November 12 entitled, “David Petraeus Affair Causes Media Soul-Searching.” What were some of the details of this article, published by this definitely-left-leaning internet news site? Spencer Ackerman, a reporter for Wired, said that he had been drawn into “the cult of David Petraeus” and wrote,
“I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus.” He went on to say that, looking back now in light of the affair revelation, “he had given Petraeus a pass too many times.” The HP article said that the news of the affair was “greeted with an almost grief-stricken tone by many in the press.”
Now, again, I am absolutely not making light of the affair. I believe such behavior is a sin, and it violates the marriage vows that Petraeus took with his wife. But I think that Thomas raises legitimate questions, and I think the reaction of the media to this story is almost odd given the way other such stories are handled, and given the sexually-saturated society in which we live. Howard Kurtz ended his opinion piece on cnn.com on Monday like this: “News flash: Even top officials are human. They succumb to temptation. And they get a lot more sympathy in times of trouble from journalists they have befriended.” Totally true. Top officials are certainly just as human as everyone else, and while we often hold them a higher standard, the temptations that they face are perhaps stronger, and the opportunities for succumbing are perhaps greater, than those for “the rest of us.” But Kurtz is also right about favorable coverage–or it would make sense for him to be right. But is he? After all, the statements made by Phillips and Ackerman and others seem to suggest that they are judging Petraeus more harshly because of their relationship with him.
Later in his piece, Cal Thomas writes, “Culture promotes all sorts of pre- and extramarital activity as exciting, even commonplace. So how is a high-profile public official to know what is tolerable and what is an offense that can lead to resignation, firing, or impeachment? Divorce is another matter, as most spouses don’t tolerate adultery well.”
Valid points, all. Our culture glamorizes sexual relationships of all kinds, from premarital to extramarital to polygamous to open. There is a even an internet dating service targeted at married individuals; its motto is “Life is short. Have an affair.” The site has even offered a guarantee that its members will have an affair.
At the end of the day, this issue is about much more than David Petraeus (or Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy or any other well-known adulterer). The issue is really about our culture. Why do we think we can advertise, promote, display and glamorize certain behaviors and simultaneously express outrage when people actually live their lives that way? What could be more hypocritical? The answer is not to become more accepting of adultery or other behaviors we have celebrated. No, the answer is to return to teaching, modeling and encouraging personal integrity and values and consistency…and to show the real consequences of personal choices rather than those so often depicted by Hollywood, Madison Avenue and others. And ultimately, of course, the answer is a heart change…a recognition of our depravity, a recognition that we all mess up, and a recognition that we simply cannot fix that by ourselves.