Normally, nothing provokes more ludicrous and hysterical behaviour from our public figures than sex scandals. Bill Clinton famously queried the definition of the word “is” to defend his contrary statements on Monica Lewinsky. Newt Gingrich used allegations made against him by a former wife to launch an uncharacteristically terse attack on CNN.
The Petraeus affair, in contrast, has so far managed to stay relatively clean-cut – at least for Petraeus himself.
More questions by far are being directed at the FBI, the White House and even Petraeus’ former colleagues than at Petraeus himself. Questions about why the FBI didn’t inform Congress, questions about why Petraeus remained in his job, even questions about shirtless FBI agents. And so on and so on.
In contrast, Petraeus has escaped almost unscathed. A few questions here and there, but nothing that he can’t handle – so long as the affair didn’t start before he took up the CIA job.
So how did a public figure who, by his own admission, showed “extremely poor judgement” in pursuing an extramarital affair, end up with a more positive PR profile than those who had brought his affair to light?
Petraeus’ decision to resign – whether it was one he reached independently or no – makes a huge amount of sense from a PR perspective. Leading from the front – check. Planning for the worst – check. Controlling the story – check, check, check. Here’s how he managed it:
Transparency Bizarrely for a spy chief who had an illicit affair with a woman twenty years his junior, Petraeus has come across as the figure with nothing to hide – particularly next to the FBI.
With privacy – and its legal limits – set to be the biggest moral issue of the 21st century, the Bureau’s method of investigation has appeared, well, a little murky.
Trawling intimate emails and emptying a woman’s home of files and computer equipment may be legally permissible, but it still provokes profound discomfort. Then there’s the fact that the simultaneously investigation managed to be secretive and subject to a covert leak to Eric Cantor.
Next to the FBI – the organisation that spies on the spies – Petraeus appeared an open book.
Speaking to the gallery Petraeus also succeeded because he understood his audience. Adultery may not be a crime (at least, not normally), even for a CIA director, but it is viewed poorly by the Department of Defense in general. More often than not, it carries the risk of a court-martial for behaviour liable to bring the military into disrepute.
Particularly given his solid reputation in the military, Petraeus had to take the same course of action he would have expected from his former troops – a honourable resignation of his post. His supporters expected him to act like a general and, inn the end, he didn’t disappoint.
Controlling the story General Petraeus certainly had the option of sitting this story out and hoping for the best. He would have joined a long and ignoble tradition of adulterous public figures from FDR to Clinton had he chosen to do so.
Instead, while the FBI was busy not telling Congress what they’d discovered, Petraeus chose the manner in which the story was timed and presented. In a single written statement, he admitted wrongdoing, announced his resignation and took no questions.
Every adultery story since Helen and Paris has followed the same pattern of a drip-drip series of revelations. The Petraeus affair is likely to go the same way in time. For the time-being, though, Petraeus has spoken his lines faultlessly, exited stage right and left the FBI behind to answer the awkward questions.
Posted by: Alistair Walker @ IBA