The postscript to Petraeus’s biography

When the news broke Friday that General David Petraeus has suddenly resigned as head of the CIA because of an extramarital affair, I immediately pasted the Washington Post head and deck into an email to my Army brother with this subject line: “Oh no!”

It wasn’t yet public who his partner had been in this affair – or that some of his closest aides in the Middle East had noticed the general’s growing intimacy with the woman and had had the same thought.

Already we’ve seen, and will more in the coming days, several lessons from this mess. 1. As my brother hinted in his response (or maybe I’m just reading into it), men – will they ever learn? Nope. (Or in a variation learned from my college roommate, the smartest people can be really, really stupid.) 2. You can never know another person’s marriage. Maybe you can never fully know your own, either. 3. In this technological age, it’s harder and harder to keep a secret. 4. True, but as usual, this one was blown open by human frailty (chutzpah, hubris, jealousy, etc.) before the machines got involved. 5. Deployments threaten families and marriages – one of the issues Holly Petraeus had long worked on as an advocate for military families. 6. Geez Louise, what can possibly be worth the risk of your job, your marriage, your personal and professional reputation, and the pleasure of having your private life not splashed across every front page and news broadcast in America?

But the “who” is what I found intriguing here. The pretty, much younger woman involved is the lead author of Petraeus’s bestselling biography. They had quite a lot in common, which is surely what led to the strength of their acquaintance. Of course you want chemistry – at least a strong working relationship – with your biographer, but that may not be the best reason to choose a particular person.

From the Post’s article about her: “The woman, Paula Broadwell, then 37, had never written a book and had almost no journalistic experience. … [Petraeus] had until then been extraordinarily careful in managing his public image, allowing limited access to a handful of journalists, former aides say. … Peter Mansoor, a former executive officer on Petraeus’s staff, said he thought the general’s uncharacteristic confidence in an untested writer was ‘strange.’ ‘My gosh, if you are going to have someone interview everyone who has ever touched you in your life, choose someone who has written a biography or at least a history book,’ he said in an interview Saturday.”

(Not to mention that she regularly wore “unusually tight” clothing in an Islamic war zone and spilled “sensitive operational details” in Facebook posts from the same war zone. But see Lessons 1 and 1a above.)

Yes, the second coauthor is Vernon Loeb, a Post and Philly Inquirer editor who has overseen DoD coverage. Still, celebrities and their publishers aren’t focused on the second coauthor. If you are arguably the preeminent general of a generation, so concerned with your image for posterity, do you follow your ego (or worse) and choose a newbie with whom you have a lot in common and a ton of chemistry? Or do you pick an experienced biographer or reporter, someone who may not be as flattering, as deferential? It’s a serious question, what kind of biography you want for the ages. And what does each member of the team realistically contribute to that end?

You could say the proof is in the pudding; the book garnered strong but mixed reviews and became a bestseller. Or you could look at the fact that this untested writer used seriously questionable judgment on several occasions – including in sending threatening emails to a perceived rival, which is what got the FBI on her trail and led to a scandal that made headlines around the world.

It’s easy to come up with another lesson: Choose a biographer with a track record, one at least with a background as a reporter/writer/editor etc. Would that have avoided trouble, though? Has a professional biographer never, ever begun an affair with the subject? Has a professional, experienced writer never been known to go off the deep end and do something really dumb, even borderline criminal?

I’m going to have to fall back on Lesson 2 here: I can’t see inside either one’s marriage, and unless they spill to the press (this is contrary to my professional interest, but honestly, more people would be smart to keep their mouths shut!), we’re not going to know much. I would, however, like to know what Vernon Loeb thinks. He might write a column for the Post; I’ll keep an eye out for that. His view of this mess would be both unique and enlightening.

Addendum, Monday night. There it is! “Petraeus ghostwriter ‘clueless’ to affair.” By Vernon Loeb. First sentence: “My wife says I’m the most clueless person in America.” Heh. In the photo, he looks like an older version of Sean Penn in Milk. Turns out he and Broadwell were paired up by their mutual agent – he to be the ghostwriter at home in Maryland, she to be the researcher with unfettered access in the field. “An incredible opportunity,” he thought. When people raised eyebrows about the researcher and the general, he says, he always gave her the benefit of the doubt.

As for the biography and its authors, “the editors at Penguin Press were quite clear about what they wanted: a book on the rigors of command told from an inside point of view,” he says. “I had no say over the book’s ultimate take on Petraeus, which some have found excessively laudatory. Broadwell was free to make whatever revision or modifications she desired to the text, and did so liberally.”

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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One Comment on “The postscript to Petraeus’s biography”

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