David Petraeus and Public Morality

If secrets are a danger, isn’t openness the best defense? Or does the public lust for sex scandals trump everything?

There are two particularly odd aspects to the resignation of David Petraeus over his extramarital affair.The first relates to how obvious it is that he must resign: a man carrying on an extramarital affair is a security risk, since he has a personal secret that makes him vulnerable to blackmail. Further, a man who would willingly make himself vulnerable in that way seems to be a man who makes bad decisions with important secrets. Right?

Back in the 50s and 60s, it was national policy that homosexuals, male or female, were barred from federal employment. The reason given was that their unnatural lifestyle made them vulnerable to blackmail; the Commies could threaten to expose their secrets if they didn’t play ball with the KGB. Now, logically, that makes no damn sense. If someone is closeted, then all that anti-gay policy does is give them greater incentive to stay closeted, thus making them a greater security risk. If they’re openly homosexual, then there’s no security risk, because their dark secret is no secret. Imagine trying to tell Elton John that if he doesn’t deliver a million dollars by midnight, the world will know that he’s gay. He and his husband would just laugh and suggest you watch a few of his music videos from the 70s in case you missed it the first time.

This applies to Gen. Petraeus’s case; would it shake the foundations of the earth if he were to say “I am having an extramarital affair and I will be retaining my position as CIA head. My affair is relevant to exactly three people, so if you’re not me, my wife, or my girlfriend, kindly piss off.”? Doesn’t leave a lot of ground for blackmail, does it? It is not the act of cheating on his wife that is the problem with regard to his job; it is the secrecy. Cheating on his wife may be a problem with regard to his marriage, or it may not. That’s between him and his wife and none of the rest of us. With regard to his job, it is only the mismanagement of a secret that is a problem.

We’re told that he’s resigning because he feels he acted dishonorably, but obviously that’s not the case: he didn’t resign when he started the affair, did he? He resigned when it became clear that his secret was going to get out. He was, based on what we know, fine with acting dishonorably as long as nobody knew about it. Again, the actions were never the problem—only the secret was. That leads to the second odd thing about this resignation over a moral lapse.

The second odd aspect to Gen. Petraeus’s resignation is that if you’re the director of the CIA and the most immoral thing you do in a day is cheat on your wife, it’s because you called in sick to work. You can argue that the CIA undertakes morally shady actions in defense of vital national interests or to protect freedom, or you can argue they’re the straight-up bad guys; that’s entirely orthogonal to the point. The basic duties of the CIA are and always have been morally dubious at best, regardless of their ultimate justification.

And yet this is no part of the tongue-clucking currently going on about his quitting. If you believe that the actions of the CIA are ultimately justified and worthwhile, then surely Gen. Petraeus should continue his fine work regardless of where he’s dipping his wick. If you believe that the CIA is a global threat to human rights, then getting some on the side is probably the least immoral thing he’s done since he took the job. Either way, this speaks to a very serious issue in our society: our willingness to enforce sexual morality before, and instead of, any other kind.

One is reminded of a story that plays out in America’s various Christian subcultures quite often: a public figure in one church or another will cap off a long career of greed, intolerance, unkindness, and other moral sins by cheating on his wife, sometimes with another man, and all of a sudden everyone will draw back in horror, gasping and shaking their heads at the revelation that he’s a sinner. This pattern dates back at least as far as Aimee Semple McPherson, America’s very first true televangelist, whose career survived years of lying, con artistry, and financial chicanery, but was irrevocably crippled when she spent a weekend banging her radio operator.

Why are we more comfortable, as a society, condemning sexual sins than any other kind? Why are we so willing to write off abuses of office, abdication of moral leadership, outright criminal behavior in our public figures, but still pounce like cats on any hint that someone’s genitals might have strayed outside the imaginary lines? Is it because our nation was founded by Puritans, the only people in history to get kicked out of England for being too uptight? Is it because our media culture has figured out that sex sells better than misappropriation and is easier to spell? Is it just because we get a vicarious thrill from the Astor Diary, the Starr Report, and whatever emailed shenanigans Gen. Petraeus was getting up to?

Sadly, no good answers present themselves. Instead we’re presented with two embarrassing spectacles: first, of a national figure resigning a very important job over, literally, the least important secret to which he was privy; second, of a social and media discourse incapable of seeing anything strange about that.


Photo—AP/Cliff Owen

About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. Maybe it’s not the sexual sin that is so horrible, but the sin of betrayal. Banging someone isn’t news; banging someone you’re not supposed to bang, now THAT’S a scandal. The lines you speak of are not so “imaginary” for a lot of people; the lines around loyalty, to God or Country or Spouse or whatever, are pretty damn real and permanent and powerful. Otherwise loyalty would have no meaning. In this case, Patreus was disloyal to his wife and his country, both big boundaries to cross.

    That said, I do tend to agree that, in general, we conflate sexual misconduct with a serious character flaw. A Good Person would never carry on an affair because that is Bad, so if you carry on an affair, you cannot be a Good Person.

    But there are other immoral acts that can get you written off as a Bad Person too. See also: hubbub over Romney’s dog on the car roof.

    • Not being overly familiar with all of the intricacies of US Politics, I do find it highly troubling that an OP and thread addressing sexual behaviours and the reaction of Joe and Joanna Public to being caught out have a comment that links the subject to Mitt Romeny On the Roof Of A Car With His Dog! ‘P^0

      Is reader caution advised before I hit Google?

  2. I do find this unrolling – unfurling – expanding story quite odd. I’m not sure if the full details have come out and I get a whiff of there being yet more to come. The Triangle is not yet balanced.

    But, I do I agree that it is so odd that anything below the belly button has folks apoplectic and in quite a tizzy. I have seen one blog which was getting quite religious over it all and even mentioning the Big Ten given to Moses.

    I was looking at the “Thou Shalt Nots” and wondered about theft. What would have to be stolen to get the same level of reaction? I did think Air Force One, but then remembered that you can even steal an election and it gets literately No Comment – and you have covetousness thrown in for good measure.

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