I can remember the specific moment when I swore off the sex lives of the famous as journalistic currency. It was the case of a national sportscaster — I won’t name him, but, alas, most of those old enough will remember the name, which is regrettable — whose sex life had suddenly become the media chow.
This man had been involved in a consensual relationship with another adult and for reasons both ridiculous and obscure, the other adult thought it just and meaningful to reveal herself and her complaints, making explicit all of the unique and varied ways in which she and this man had expressed their sexuality. And my, wasn’t he a weird one. And wasn’t it funny.
When that story broke, I was standing in the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun and I remember my growing distaste watching reporters and rewrite men as they were sucked, joking and snickering, into the breaking news. And no one had any doubt that it was news. The man was a national sportscaster, for the love of god. A more public figure this nation cannot muster.
I was no Candide on a first promenade through Paris. I’d held pen and notepad akimbo and reported hypocritically at points. Not a year earlier, I think, I’d been guilty of dragging to the front of the metro section some sad sack who happened to serve on a mayor’s advisory committee — an unpaid position, mind you — and happened to get arrested in a car with a lit marijuana cigarette between his lips. At the price of that misdemeanor, I’d messed that guy up good. Wasn’t my fault he caught that charge; hey, I was just the cop shop reporter calling districts and reporting arrests. Don’t shoot the messenger.
And then, like the shitbird that reporters often are obliged to be, I probably left work that night and smoked a joint with the night editor, after which, we went to Burke’s for onion rings. Which we did just about every other night.
Hypocrisy will never go out of style in American journalism or American life. But sitting there and watching the rewrite and sports desk mobilize to surround the sexual wanderings of a sportscaster, I remember making a decision: Enough. This is just sex. This is nothing more than the odd, notable penis or the odd, notable vagina staggering off the marked path and rubbing against the wrong tree. This is just people.
I told myself that I wasn’t in journalism to chase something so ordinary, so adolescent as other people’s sexuality, that I wouldn’t play this game, that there were better reasons to be a reporter, and there were better things for readers to consume. I knew that one soldier opting out from such a lurid and exalted battlefield of the media wars meant nothing, but I did it anyway. Fuck Gingrich’s divorces. Fuck Lewinsky. Fuck where Anthony Weiner found some happy online moments. I’m not playing anymore. I long ago ceased to even pretend to care.
The arguments about character? That human sexuality isn’t the most compartmentalized element of our nature? That if someone will lie about sex, they’ll lie about other things? Really? No, sorry, fuck that tripe. Character has become the self-righteous rallying cry of far greater hypocrisy than any cheating husband. It’s the excuse that makes our prurient leer seem meaningful and reasoned.
Observe the process by which we remove some of the most essential American figures of the last century for having failed to corral their sexual organs in the marital bedroom: Roosevelt, gone. Eisenhower, gone. Kennedy, gone. Lyndon Johnson, gone. Clinton, gone. Martin Luther King, Jr., gone. Edward Murrow, gone. Follow the gamboling penis to an arid expanse of sociopolitical wasteland, where many of the greatest visionaries and actors can never tred, a desert in which only the Calvin Coolidges and Richard Nixons remain standing. Anyone who looks at the history of mankind and argues that private sexual fidelity exists in direct proportion to political greatness or moral leadership is either a chump or a liar.
And now comes General Petraeus.
His penis, too, has roamed. And now he is grist for the usual mill. And there will be three themes that we must now endure ad nauseum from all of the men and women of our media elite who will gather around their laptops and type so furiously as to obliterate everything they actually know about human sexuality and achieve the necessary velocity for judgment and arrogance:
1) Man, this guy was dumb. Ha hah!
2) Too dumb to be the Director of C.I.A. Isn’t that a sensitive position? Shouldn’t his penis only show itself in the most careful moments, so as to protect a great nation’s secrets? Isn’t he therefore incompetent? As well as:
2a) Didn’t he know he was boning a crazy lady? The head of the CIA should be smarter than to be boning crazy ladies, right?
And lastly, because there is always a place for dumbass partisanship:
3) How does this affect the Democrats? How does it affect the Republicans? When can we put a -gate on the end of this scandal?
To wit, let us parse the work of one Roger Simon, my namesake alas, a veteran political writer currently slinging witticisms and paper-thin insight for Politico.com:
“Gen. David Petraeus is dumb, she’s dumber.”
That’s the headline. Let’s venture southward into the prose and see what we find:
Ah, Mr. Simon says the general should not have resigned because he’s involved in a sex scandal. No, “he should have resigned because if he were any more dimwitted, you would have had to water him.”
Ha, hah! That’s great stuff. Mr. Simon is saying that the head of the CIA is as dumb as plant. Because you have to water them. A tasty bon mot, and we’re off and running. Mr. Simon then offers to leave aside “the sordid, yet fascinating details” of the general’s private life — after which a sordid, yet fascinating detail is quickly cited — and instead focus intently on all of ways in which General Petraeus and his paramour were indifferent to being discovered — their use of email, the girlfriend’s jealous anger and her foolish compulsion in expressing that anger in writing to a perceived rival, and finally, Petraus being unwilling to act sensibly when confronted by the FBI: “When Bill Clinton was caught in a sex scandal, he lied through his teeth until they came up with the DNA. Not Petraeus. He folded immediately…and admitted everything.”
So, now that we’ve had our fun chronicling how poorly these two people have handled their personal affair, it is time for Mr. Simon to turn his level gaze on General Petraus as the public man. Just what did Petraeus do so that we thought he had any merit in the first place? And Roger Simon — a man who has covered politics all his life, who is charged by a news organization that wishes to be a serious prism by which Americans can evaluate the political world and its relationship to actual issues and policy — he has exactly this to say:
He was once on an airplane five years ago with John McCain. And he interviewed McCain, who admired Petraeus, who thought him charismatic, who then, in this interview, reduced the general to an anecdote: “One thing he did was have a bag of money, and he would go around and say, “OK, build this irrigation ditch, buy yourself a generator.”
This is more than enough for national political columnist Roger Simon to look down at the valley of the dumb and dumber from the high mesa of his sun-kissed laptop and joke about being impressed, since he is from Chicago and knows the value of carrying around bags of money with which to dispense favors. And then Mr. Simon offer his grave doubts — based on what John McCain told him about David Petraeus second-hand, in an offhand interview on a plane between Cedar Rapids and Davenport — that Petraeus, despite his education, his military experience, or any other qualification, was the man to save Iraq or Afghanistan. As if such a man even exists.
And there it is: Not only is Petraeus dumb, he’s easily expendable. Bring on the next hump and let’s see if he keeps it in his pants.
But here is the real world in proportion:
David Petraeus has had sex outside his marriage, as have many men and many women. Human sexuality and compulsion are not in any way related to intelligence. It’s not that the dumb or powerful are more prone to fucking around, or that the intelligent and powerless do it to any greater degree. It’s that men in general are hopelessly and permanently prone to contemplate sex and furtive romance and, sometimes, to act on it. The reasons they do so are crude, ordinary and inevitable. Women are also hopelessly and permanently prone to contemplate furtive romance and sex — and yes, I changed the order, I know — and the reasons they do so are only marginally less crude, ordinary and inevitable.
Professionally, David Petraeus understood a helluva lot more than John McCain conveyed to Roger Simon in two minutes of conversation. For one thing, if Mr. Simon wanted to be honest, he might acknowledge that it was Petraeus who saw the morass that was Iraq even as it began, who famously turned to a journalist on the march into Baghdad with the 101st Airborne and declared openly: I know how this begins, but explain to me how this ends? That alone makes the man more astute and more valuable than an entire White House, most of the Pentagon, and much of the American press corps, which itself failed to raise much worry when war in Iraq was being debated, or rather, not seriously debated at all. It certainly makes Petraeus smarter than most of America, which largely supported that disastrous intervention.
To characterize Petraeus now as having failed to save either Iraq or Afghanistan is facile and dishonest and, of course, necessary to Mr. Simon’s argument that the sexual misadventures of a human being can then reveal that perhaps this fellow wasn’t smart enough in the first place. After all he got caught, didn’t he? A smart fellow would have taken more care. No emails. Only whispers. And affections only for cunning and discreet ladies. No undue emotions, please.
Having had a sexual misadventure, this guy can’t be smart, and therefore, let’s make him completely clueless by dint of a solitary, second-hand conversation with one distracted politician. No other context is required.
It would be one thing if this were a scandal that could have compromised the CIA or American intelligence, if this were some honey trap set by foreign entities. When politically-connected columnist Joe Alsop was famously lured into a homosexual liaison by Russian intelligence, which then attempted to turn Alsop, he rightly marched into the CIA headquarters and revealed the ploy, rendering it moot. And if there were indications that Petraeus was vulnerable to being so blackmailed, this mess might have actual import. But no, upon being confronted with his paramour’s indiscreet emails, he confessed all, resigned, and returned to private life to attempt, no doubt, to salvage his marriage or at least deal with the personal implications of it all.
More incredibly, Mr. Simon argues the general’s stupidity in not lying to federal investigators. He is, at that moment, not merely callow and sneering, as much of the press is apt to be in such a circumstance, he is, himself, grandly idiotic. The penalties for lying to an FBI agent are profound. Just ask Henry Cisneros. Or Martha Stewart for that matter. Or Bill Clinton. No doubt if the general did lie and was later charged with a false statement, or worse, lying to a grand jury, Mr. Simon and his like would rush to declare that it wasn’t the marital infidelity that we care about, but the perjury and dishonesty. As if it isn’t entirely rational for any human being — caught and shamed for thinking with their genitals as ordinary mortals are often apt to do — to lie and avoid not only the public shaming, but the private harm to other loved ones inherent in that public disgrace. Nice for the press to have it both ways: Shame them when they tell the truth about their private indiscretions, or stand self-righteously and defend the public trust if they don’t. Christ. It’s enough to make even a half-honest man vomit.
I’m neither an admirer nor detractor of General Petraeus. But I am most definitely a detractor of what journalism has become in this country, of what passes for the qualitative analysis of our society and its problems. And I’ve paid enough attention to the human condition to no longer take seriously the notion that anyone who lets penis or vagina rub against the wrong person, who is indiscreet in doing so, and who then tells the truth about it when confronted by an FBI agent is unfit for either citizenship or public service. I certainly know enough about the human condition to know that all kinds of people — smart and dumb, powerful and powerless — are capable of finding themselves in such a circumstance and shaking their heads at just how far they strayed, at just how indiscreet they were in their very ordinary, human hunger, and how they have hurt those closest to them. Sex, done right, is some powerful shit. And when Americans begin to accept the human condition for what it is rather than an opportunity to jeer at the other fellow for getting caught, then we will be, if nothing else, a little bit more grown up. I remember when Francois Mitterand’s wife and mistress walked beside each other in the French premier’s funeral procession and few in that country thought it remarkable. The French have got their problems, but in some respects, they make our country, our political commentary, seem as mature and insightful as a fourteen-year-old unsticking the pages of his dad’s just-discovered skin mags. It’s a peculiar American hypocrisy that only the worst kind of journalistic hack would readily and willingly embrace as a meaningful metric.
We’ve caught some of the smartest and most commited public men and women with their pants at their ankles. Time and again, we’ve had our fun. We’ve roundly mocked them for the very weaknesses that are so utterly our own. Reporters who have at points in their lives fucked themselves silly in hotel rooms across this great land of ours while pursuing the infidelities of more public men with righteous glee — these are not men and women who are much inclined to any real moment of self reflection, but then who among us really is? This kind of hypocrisy requires a complicit silence and a ritual wiping of the memory before every byline. Well, I’m 52 years old and I will admit that I have not lived this long without occasionally misplacing my penis. For shame, yeah. And so, being fully complicit in the human comedy, the last thing I’m going to mock is the mistakes that others make in the rush to bed, or why they do so.
But for those who love throwing stones, is it too much to ask that their aim be true? That they limit the target to Darwinian compulsion, to ordinary, and yes, at times, unthinking human desire. That they not equip themselves to judge the totality of a public servant’s entire career and works solely with the details of whatever sexual misadventure we happen to discover. Roosevelt was a smart guy. So was Eisenhower. Clinton might be the smartest president of my generation. And David Petraeus saw and spoke to the folly of Iraq before the rest of America was cheering the fall of Saddam’s statue. And he stayed long after that folly was evident to work at a remedy for and an extrication from that tragic intervention.
If we can judge stupidity by solitary lapses, then Roger Simon, by dint of this recent column could rightly be judged a moron. And if we’re going to free associate stupidity with the public discovery of sexual misadventure, such vacuous shit as Mr. Simon just offered up virtually requires him to be caught unawares in a Nuevo Laredo whorehouse with a fistful of fifties.
What I just wrote is unfair of course. I’m sure Mr. Simon has had better and meaningful moments commenting on our body politic, just as the general has had other, more meaningful moments as a public servant. But given that Petraeus himself doesn’t seem to have done anything criminal, or failed in his public performance, one can surmise that his decision to depart as CIA director is predicated on what he will now endure from our stunted media culture.
Allen Dulles screwed his way through dozens of women as director of the CIA. Dulles, by every fair historical assessment, was a Georgetown player and backroom bullshitter who led the agency into some of the worst intelligence failures in American history, then created an alternate myth of success for the agency. Shame on the American press corps of those years for buying into the professional myth, of course, but hey, at least those then covering the intelligence community hadn’t reduced themselves to a copse of dour-faced, suit-and-tie-wearing Hedda Hoppers. They didn’t give a shit who Dulles slept with. But David Petraeus can expect no such quarter, or — as Mr. Simon’s commentary suggests — even the smallest sense of proportion.
Of course he quit.
* * *
Earlier, instead of the reference to Anthony Weiner, this essay utilized Herman Cain as a similar example. In fact, I am reminded that in the case of Mr. Cain, the allegation was one of sexual harassment in the workplace. Obviously, there is a prevailing public interest in such cases — as well as those involving political leaders who advocate for specific standards of sexual morality and then violate those standards. To keep it on point, the argument here is about sex between consenting adults who have not sought to argue against such practice in any public sphere.