WASHINGTON — As events have unfolded in what shall ever be known as “The Petraeus Affair,” one cannot escape noticing that the women in this sordid saga have been handed the short end of the shtick, as though the men are mere victims of ambitious, hormonally driven vixens.
There’s the so-called “socialite” in Tampa, Jill Kelley, who courted generals and exchanged at least hundreds of e-mails with our lead commander in Afghanistan, John Allen. And there’s the biographer with toned arms, Paula Broadwell, who wore tight jeans and allegedly seduced America’s most darling general, David Petraeus.
The double standard we apply to men and women in these very human dramas is nothing new, but also nothing short of appalling. Even as we urge women to behave in every way as men, even pushed to arms on the battlefront, the Madonna-whore dichotomy is alive and writhing.
The two men are golden, we are inclined to infer. The women, well, what is one to think? Tarnished and branded, discarded as chattel having each served her purpose.
Here’s an alternative narrative. Let’s assume for a moment that everyone involved in this spectacle is actually a good and decent, if flawed, person, variations of the definitions notwithstanding. Yes, Kelley and her husband have financial difficulties, but who doesn’t these days? Isn’t it also possible that Kelley, in addition to enjoying the company of generals, wanted to do something nice for her country by providing a social outlet for military personnel?
As for her e-mail exchanges with Allen, the only relevant concern seems to be that the general apparently has more time on his hands than a general should.
Otherwise, communicating via social media and e-mail is merely our modern campfire. We are social animals, and lonely people will find each other through the smoke.
More complicated is the relationship between Petraeus and Broadwell, if only because of an investigation into questionable e-mails she sent to Kelley, whom she apparently considered a rival. Broadwell is being investigated for “cyberstalking” and also in regard to classified documents found on her computer.
These investigations are ongoing and, as yet, have confirmed no personal or professional breach. Still, Broadwell has been essentially indicted in the public mind. Her security clearance, which ultimately might justify her possession of the documents in question, has been suspended, which is probably appropriate under the circumstances, though hardly conclusive.
Nevertheless, Broadwell’s reputation has been tarnished well beyond the sin for which she has expressed sincere remorse. The married mother of two has been characterized by an increasingly tabloid press as the scarlet woman, the “mistress,” an outdated word that indicts a woman but rarely the man, smirkingly suggestive of “kept-ness.” Broadwell has even been criticized for showing too much arm on TV.
As much as we sympathize with the painful upheaval suffered by the families involved, let’s pause a moment for Broadwell and recall that she was an Army officer, a West Point graduate, an accomplished, yes, ambitious, elite member of the military who, as it turns out, happens to have had a relationship with a man for whom she apparently had strong feelings.
Did she cause others pain? Of course, and for this she is suffering by all accounts. Does she deserve to be pilloried in the public square? Or does she deserve the same second chance any similarly accomplished man would be accorded?
One does not need to approve of the behavior to grant compassion and suspend judgment, at least until we know whether there is any reason for public interest beyond the prurient.
In the meantime, our urgency to apply different standards to women than to men deserves scrutiny.
For women, there’s no margin for error in public life, yet men walk away virtually unscathed — re-elected to office, rehired by Wall Street, re-assigned to a new parish, rehabilitated by the mere act of entering “rehab.” Puhleez.
Broadwell is one of America’s success stories, if you buy the woman-warrior myth. Her only flaw seems to have been falling for another man and, in the way some men do, showing off biceps toned by hundreds of hours of hard work.
KATHLEEN PARKER writes for the Orlando Sentinel. Her column is distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.