Former CIA Director David Petraeus went through a spectacular public downfall, just over a week ago, when news of his affair spurred his resignation.
Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz talks to Wired senior writer Spencer Ackerman about why the media is partly to blame for Petraeus's fall from grace, Newsweek and Daily Beast reporter Michelle Cottle talks about why Petraeus should be given a break, and Temple University psychologist Frank Farley talks about why so many of our most revered leaders cheat. Finally, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer talks about redemption following a public downfall.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
In a few minutes, we're going to go to Gaza for the latest on the escalating violence there between Israel and the Palestinian militant group, Hamas. But first to our cover story today: the rise and fall of David Petraeus.
Now, the story has developed a kind of supermarket tabloid quality, and it's not what we plan to explore here, but rather what the Petraeus story says about us and about the hope for redemption.
In a moment, a man who had his own very public fall from grace, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, will weigh in. But first to a journalist who wrote a mea culpa of sorts about Petraeus this past week. His name is Spencer Ackerman, and he covers national security for Wired. Ackerman first met Petraeus in 2005. And this week, he wrote that he was, quote, "punked" by the Petraeus machine and that he became, in effect, part of that machine that perpetuated a myth.
SPENCER ACKERMAN: The myth was that Petraeus already an exceptionally talented and capable Army officer was larger than life, was superhuman. And I'd found Petraeus, you know, during that time as a younger reporter, just a tremendously impressive Army officer and someone who was far more willing than nearly everyone else to engage in the candid back and forth that, you know, reporters tend to value as a mark of integrity.
And I think that probably blinded me a little bit too much to some of the more critical questions about the Iraq War and about counterinsurgency and the - ultimately created this legend around Petraeus.
RAZ: And full disclosure - I did a profile on him in 2003 in Mosul and similarly felt he was an impressive person. I mean, this is somebody that knew the name of every reporter who ever interviewed him. And I would see him every year or so after that up until 2009, 2010. He always remembered my name and yours as well, as you write.
ACKERMAN: And I think it's important to emphasize that the Broadwell affair only touches on a certain aspect of that Petraeus myth. His actual record in Iraq and Afghanistan speaks for itself. And now that the myth is a little bit punctuated, it might be time for some critical (unintelligible).
RAZ: Speaks for itself in that it wasn't as successful as it appeared at the time?
ACKERMAN: Certainly, Afghanistan was not as successful as his tenure in Iraq. I don't mean to say that Petraeus was a poor Army officer, but it does seem to merit the reassessment that the myth that he cultivated, that his allies cultivated to build him up was ultimately the cause of what seems to be the affair that doomed him at the CIA.
RAZ: OK. Why would an extramarital affair prompt you to reassess his career now? I mean, what is different about your thinking about Petraeus this week than it was 10 days ago?
ACKERMAN: It's an excellent question, and a candid answer I'd offer to you is that it got me thinking about what separated Petraeus the man and Petraeus the record from Petraeus the public figure and Petraeus the myth. And the record ought to be its own thing. And when I went back and looked at some of my reporting, I wondered if I had allowed myself to be less than fully critical about him, and so that's why I wanted to write that piece to sort of take stock when we look at the way the media presentation of Petraeus contributed to building him up to this kind of superhuman figure.
RAZ: Because he was willing to go for jogs, and he invited you along, and he would always make himself available when you would seek a quote or an interview?
ACKERMAN: Yeah, more or less. That he cultivated an image of candor of disclosure of openness. And I wanted to kind of remind myself and hopefully inform readers that we can't let that, as reporters, overshadow what these life and death issues are. And I think it's also important to point out that, you know, both Presidents Bush and Obama used Petraeus in that way, precisely because he had this aura around him.
Bush in Iraq, you know, had Petraeus, you know, testify at this crucial moment legislatively about the Iraq surge. And Obama sent Petraeus to Afghanistan after General McChrystal imploded. And that probably as well took away some of the critical focus about the strategies in these wars and used Petraeus as a bit of insulation.
RAZ: Spencer Ackerman, he covers national security for Wired. Spencer, thanks.
ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me, Guy.
RAZ: Michelle Cottle is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. And she recently wrote a provocative article arguing, in effect, against what she sees as the hypocrisy surrounding our assessment of David Petraeus' personal foibles.
MICHELLE COTTLE: We're talking about a guy who's a total alpha male. You know, he spent half his career getting shot at and the other part was tracking down the worst of the worst guys. On some level, the kind of man who we generally ask to do those jobs are also the kind of man who are going to have like big egos and a lot of testosterone and take the kind of risk that will land you in this situation. So as far as, like, all of the people yammering at him about, oh, my God, you know, this is such of betrayal or whatever, I'm not sure that we ought to take a step back and be a little less judgmental.
RAZ: And Cottle believes Petraeus should not have had to step down. Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, more or less agrees. He studies the cult of heroes. And in a recent article in Psychology Today, he writes that careers in politics and in the military often attract risk takers. He points to great leaders who led very flawed personal lives, generals like Eisenhower and Patton and MacArthur, presidents like FDR, JFK and Bill Clinton.
DR. FRANK FARLEY: So my sense is that the American public looks at it with a prurient interest, might connect a few dots in terms of their own life and so on, but moves on. And JFK and FDR remain in the top heroes lists despite everything that we know about them, and Bill Clinton is certainly one of the world's most popular global leaders. So I think the American people have a certain perspective on this, which is that that's private and it's interesting and they shouldn't do it. But I'm more concerned about what they've done for the country politically and in terms of leadership.
RAZ: For former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, the Petraeus affair was a reminder, in many ways, of his own promise and his own fall from grace. Up until he was embroiled in the scandal that exposed liaisons with prostitutes, Spitzer was a rising star in the Democratic Party, a man many believed uniquely qualified to take on the excesses and abuses of Wall Street executives. But that promise came to a rapid end in early 2008. I asked Eliot Spitzer first how he thought President Obama should have handled the Petraeus case.
ELIOT SPITZER: I wish the president had looked at General Petraeus and said, general, you have sinned and violated your oath to your wife, and you have to deal with that and make reparations and probably suffer the public sentiment that results from that, but I expect you to continue to serve this nation. Nothing you have done diminishes your capacity to serve as director of the CIA. I believe that you are uniquely equipped to fulfill that mission, and I ask you to do so. And I will be supportive of you in that mission because we need your wisdom in that capacity.
RAZ: I'm curious to ask you about personal mistakes and recovering from it. I mean, here, you have this incredibly talented man with a certain set of skills that are unprecedented. I mean, some would say he was perfect for the job. And yet, this episode would seem to remove a talented person from that position. You have been there. How do you recover from it?
SPITZER: Well, look, let me state the obvious. I bring certain baggage with me as it relates to this issue. And so, obviously, everything I say should be understood through the prism of my experience, and so people might think, therefore, I have additional thoughts on this that are interesting or perhaps my thoughts to be discounted as a consequence. And so I want everybody to understand I appreciate that to state the obvious.
I think that there are and can be separate spheres of analysis. People have erred, sinned, violated obligations in different domains. As you've just said, I think General Petraeus is a uniquely talented individual when it comes to the military, when it comes to his intelligence capacities. Not that I have agreed with each of his strategic calls in Afghanistan or elsewhere, of course, but he is uniquely talented.
And not to be able to separate the strands of his life and to recognize that public should get the benefit of his talents in one domain, even if there have been flaws or failures elsewhere, I think, is to unfortunately deprive the public of unique talent. Now, how does one come back from events like this? Again, I think it is difficult either to generalize. I know, and here I will speak only from what I have tried to do, which is to focus on those issues, matters, individuals whom I care most about. But in the wee life, that is all one can do.
RAZ: Do you think as a society we cope with personal mistakes of public officials in ways that are unfair?
SPITZER: I do not think I can judge the fairness of it for the obvious reasons. I think the public, frankly, is entitled to judge public officials by the entirety of their existence. When one stands for elective office or point of office, the entirety of one's life is subject to scrutiny, so I appreciate that and think the public fairly can do so. I think people can and perhaps should weigh different aspects of those lives in different ways.
And I think that is the question that people should ask, for instance, with General Petraeus. Whether his breech here should be considered a disqualifying factor, which, in my view, it's too bad it has been viewed that way. I think that it is question of the balance. It is not a question of segmenting and compartmentalizing lives in their entirety. I think it is a matter of coming up with an appropriate balance of the factors that are legitimately weighed and not being so speaking with such certitude that any violation in one domain is a disqualifying factor.
And I think, in truth, our history is a bit more subtle than that if you look back in the history. But certainly at this moment, a rather harsh glare has been put on General Petraeus, and he is suffering the consequences of (unintelligible), I think, is a bit off.
RAZ: You transitioned to television, and you have used that as a way to criticize Wall Street. What do you think Petraeus could do to continue to work on behalf of U.S. national security, if anything?
SPITZER: Well, I still do not put it beyond reason that the president could say we have completed an investigation, and on further consideration, we have asked General Petraeus to come back in some capacity. Maybe not as the director of the CIA, but in some advisory capacity in the White House where his knowledge could be tapped. There are many positions at the Pentagon and outside government - official government advisory positions where his thoughts, wisdom could be utilized no matter - I would hope that's what would happen.
RAZ: Well, Governor Spitzer, I appreciate you joining us. Thank you.
SPITZER: My pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.
RAZ: That's former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. He now hosts "Viewpoint" on Current TV. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.