Petraeus, MLK and JFK: Why I Don’t Demand Fidelity From My Political Leaders


Emily Heist Moss asks a lot of her leaders, but one thing she doesn’t demand is fidelity.

Originally appeared at Role/Reboot

A few years ago, I saw General David Petraeus speak at an event in Chicago. I remember how impressed I was with his thoughtfulness, his eloquence, and his careful, considered answers to the more inane questions from the audience. I remember being pleased that this guy on the stage was partially responsible for my safety. He seemed like a good egg, like someone I could trust.

Alas, with last week’s revelations about Petraeus’ infidelity, the General falls victim to the insatiable media machine that crunches through sexual “offenders” and spits them out after weeks of drooling speculation and he-should-know-better tsk-tsking. He joins a long and prestigious list of men whose accomplishments, many that they are, will always be marked with that tiny asterisk, “He later stepped down in scandal.”


I ask a lot of my leaders. I want thoughtfulness and a sense of fairness. I want a promise to pursue justice, to consider the long-term consequences of our actions, to view issues from all sides and with regard to all constituencies. I don’t expect to agree with their conclusions 100% of the time, but I want to have faith in their methods and mindfulness. Here’s a thing I don’t ask of my leaders: fidelity. Fidelity is a promise between two people, not between one man and a nation. Consequently, when it is violated, it doesn’t affect my relationship, as a citizen, with that leader.

There are, of course, circumstances when I think a politician or public figure’s personal life or sexual historyis my business. Did he abuse his power? [Note: I’ll be using male pronouns consistent with the Petraeus example, but let’s not pretend women are immune from acting on behalf of their emotions or genitals.] With great power comes great responsibility, isn’t that what they say? From a position of influence you can sway and suggest and compel people to do things that legally might be sanctioned but are ethically not sound. Did he break any actual laws? Was his paramour underage? Did he pay her? Did he misuse the trappings of his office or neglect his responsibilities? Did he spend taxpayer money to fly her to exotic locales? Did he share confidential information with her, or miss key meetings to hole up in a motel room? If the answers to these questions are yes, then Petraeus is not the astute, considerate guy I thought I saw on that stage in the Windy City.

If the answers to these questions are no, then it is our responsibility to step back and grant privacy to consenting adults while they negotiate and untangle the strands of their complicated personal lives. Politicians and leaders are just humans, after all, and we humans are easily distracted by sex. This is not new. The list of great men who have cheated on their spouses is long and storied and includes JFK, FDR, MLK, and Bill Clinton. Don’t even get me started on our founding fathers. Are their achievements invalidated by less-than-faithful bedroom antics?

Lots of people cheat; some studies say that over a lifetime, about 30% of men and 15% of women will cheat on a partner or spouse. And in this Internet age, the capacity to pull an Anthony Weiner or a Chris Lee and find oneself digitally exposed is even greater. The things that drive people to be unfaithful to their spouses—dissatisfaction with their marriage, insecurity, the quest for validation, basic boring old lust—do not go away with a title in front of your name. Some of these motivators are even amplified by access to power, so why are we so surprised every time a politician’s mug makes the walk of shame across our front pages?

Why do we think our leaders are incapable of being messy, complex humans and also being really, really good at their work? It seems feasible to me, and even likely, that a leader such as David Petraeus can make epically moronic decisions about his personal life and still be a wise and rational military strategist.

Most adults will tell you that they have flirted with the wrong person, sent a raunchy photo to a temporary lover, slept with someone who was categorically a “bad idea,” or made any of the millions of sexual “mistakes” that are par for the course for healthy, sexually active adults. And yet most of us are able to compartmentalize our personal drama from our professional responsibilities. In fact, the ability to do so is one of the hallmarks of adulthood.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is how much does someone’s personal misadventures color their ability to lead with sound judgment? I would argue very little. But in this country, with our Puritanical roots, we are particularly susceptible to the lure of sex scandals because we are so bad at talking sanely about sex. We pretend that it is not a thing that 99% of adults do. We pretend it serves only one purpose (the making of babies), despite thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. It begins with abstinence-only education and ends with Gretchen Carlson declaring that married women don’t worry about contraception, as if married women only have sex the exact number of times it takes to get pregnant. The idea of a healthy libido is never mentioned except for a passing reference in a Cialis commercial, and even then, the commercial would have you believe those pills only work on married men.

People have sex! They like it! Sometimes they’re married, sometimes they’re not, and sometimes they’re married to someone else. Does it suck for you if you’re married to David Petraeus? Yep, and his wife has my sympathy for enduring emotional turmoil on a public stage. But who Petraeus sleeps with says about as much about his competence as a commander of U.S. forces as my bedroom preferences say about my ability to string sentences together for this essay. Zilch.


As I type this, the investigation is still unfolding and evidence continues to come to light. If it turns out that Petraeus fits those categories outlined above—abusive of his power, neglecting of his duties, dismissive of the law—then we have to reevaluate. In that case, his actions become fair game for speculation and I would support his resignation.

If, however, when all the dirt is unearthed and the email trails go cold, it turns out that David Petraeus was just one of those regular guys who cheated on his wife, then I revert to my original position. It’s none of my business.


Read more by Emily Heist Moss

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for JezebelThe FriskyThe Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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About Role/Reboot

Role/Reboot is a nonprofit created to navigate a world built on outdated assumptions about men and women's roles and to advocate ways to understand and embrace the changing reality of our day-to-day lives. Follow them @RoleReboot.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Courage, you forget the self-awarded cachet for those who announce they tolerate the previously intolerable.

  2. courage the cowardly dog says:

    He seemed like a good egg, like someone I could trust.

    Gee, that is what his wife thought too and you’d think she knew him better than anybody. But she was wrong as were you. If the guy can’t be truthful with his wife what makes you think he is going to be truthful with you or anybody. When our leaders tell us what they want to do for our country if we support their vision, it requires that we believe and trust them to do what they say, but what if they figure out what you want to hear and tell you that without any intention of delivering on what they promise. The leader’s infidelity is a view into the leader’s mind, which we rarely get, which why the guy should thrown with the trash. It has nothing to do with media frenzy or however you want to characterize it. The infidelity is a measure of integrety and character. When he spoke words came out of his mouth and those words and his delivery of those words led you to believe he was someone you could trust and that is exactly what he wanted you to believe. He played you like a fiddle (I am certain it is not the first time). I completely disagree with your premise that infidelity is not a measure of a leader’s character, it may be one of the most revealing things of a leader’s character. BTW, JFK I think was one of the most overrated presidents in our history and while MLK, did some amazing things, he was a fundamentally flawed individual whose work could have been achieved by any number of other civil rights leaders of the time. You are nothing more than an apologist for people of weak character.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Not sure how puritanical we are. Although somebody remarked that Bloomberg would have dealt with the blizzard that hit NYC a couple of years ago muc faster if someboy had told him New Yorkers were enjoying it.
    Point is, a guy who cheats lied. Lies and lies through it. Rather have a guy who doesn’t cheat. There was speculation that P had already been blackmailed. That is, his first post-Benghazi brief talked about mobs and not terrs. Even though he knew better. Turns out not to be true. It was the admin that scrubbed the terrs and inserted the video. Still, the question arose because he had been vulnerable.
    Show me a guy who cheats and I’ll find something else to look at. But when his responsibilities include authority and responsibility over me and my country’s welfare, it is my business.

  4. The author says that she expects ” a promise.. to consider the long-term consequences of our actions, to view issues from all sides and with regard to all constituencies.” Doesn’t infidelity demonstrate that the person in question has serious issues keeping just such promises? Not to mention what Jay mentions regarding the blackmail question, which is ultimately why he had to step down. Clearly when Gen. Petraeus engaged in the extra marital affair he was not thinking about long term consequences and what it might mean for the security of his agency. And here’s the thing, I think that the evidence shows that such affairs are not typically one off events, especially at the General’s age. They typically represent a pattern of behavior. The pattern speaks volumes of the over all ability of the person in question to keep the very kinds of promises the author expects of her leaders.

  5. What the author (and Petreaus) totally does not grasp is the fact that:
    1) infidelity is…. ‘infidelity’ – you vowed something when you got married and you don’t stick to it. How (un)trustworthy does that make you in other parts of your life (mainly: work)?
    2) as a powerful person, you may be blackmailed – either by people that ‘planted’ the lovebunny, by the lover him/herself or others that accidentally find out – throughout history it has been one of the main methods to ‘influence’ people – as it seldom fails…
    3) and, related to #2: it is a surefire way to get confidential/secret information.

    So, it is not about infidelity as such (I don’t care what people do – there are many valid reasons why people cheat – I will never hold that against them) – it is about becoming a liability – particularly in an ‘intelligence’ agency. The only sensible thing he could do was resigning.
    But, it is telling that people don’t even care about their (supposed) leaders as such anymore – lowering standards yet complaining about lack of integrity at the top…

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