Why Powerful Men Get In Trouble (and Why We Care)

First, we had CIA Director David Petraeus being held over the fire for a possible affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Then General John Allen, the top-ranking NATO Commander in Afghanistan, drawn into the drama as allegations of indiscretions of his own with Jill Kelly (the credibility and severity of which remains to be determined), who also is linked to Ms. Broadwell and the related Petraeus drama. Then there’s rumor of FBI agents sending shirtless pictures of themselves to women and…anyway, you get the idea.

As if all of that wasn’t weird enough, now there’s the matter of Kevin Clash, inventor of and voice for Sesame Street’s Elmo, being accused by a young man of having an illicit relationship while the accuser was underage. The man has since recanted his claim, but not before Clash admitted to a consensual encounter with the accuser when he was of legal age, if just barely.

Why do they do it? Why would a fifty-ish-year-old man put his lifelong dreams at risk by engaging a young man whose character might be questionable (see accusation above) in an intimate encounter? Why would an FBI agent send half-naked photos of himself to anyone, particularly in a way that could be traced back to him? Why would men at the top levels of the CIA and the US military seem to lack the good sense at least to show greater discretion when interacting with women other than their wives? How can they not recognize the risk they bring on themselves, their careers and their families in being so apparently careless, or even reckless, with their communication?

Why They Get Caught

Temptation is everywhere. Power, fame and money attract all kinds of strange company. Chances are, such men are exposed to temptation that might not otherwise come their way, had they not been in their positions in the first place. Also, although being a public figure can seem attractive to many, many have suggested that it’s actually a much lonelier existence than one might expect. So when someone comes along who seems to have an interest in more than a sound byte or a handout, such figures may be more vulnerable than the average Joe to such advances.

Because they’re risk-takers. For the most part, success doesn’t drop in someone’s lap. It’s something that has to be worked for, often over a lifetime. To paraphrase Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, success comes to those who are willing first to fail more than most. As such, those who find themselves at the top of their game often have some degree of unnatural risk tolerance, or even a strange attraction to the inherent danger of possibly losing it all at any turn. In fact, there are some like Jon Ronson, author of “The Psychopath Test,” who postulate that a certain degree of psychopathic behavior actually benefits people in trying to climb the ladder of success.

They believe they’re immune. This point rides on the coattails on the previous one. Maybe for some, the risk of failure isn’t the attraction, or even the potential benefit in spite of the risk. Some men have such a distorted sense of their own place in the world that they never even consider the possibility that they might fail or get caught. Psychopathic behavior? maybe not technically, but it’s arguably a distant relative.

They’re easy targets. For everyone who is in the limelight, there are scads of folks who not only long for such attention, but who will even convince themselves that they are more deserving. As such, successful people are more vulnerable to people trying to use them for less than savory purposes. Personally, I have no problem with Elmo’s creator being gay, although I might question his judgment in engaging a man more than thirty years his junior in a relationship. But talk about a chance to gain some instant attention! Stir up some scandal around a figure of childhood innocence and suddenly you’re the center of attention. Granted, it may be an ugly moment in the national spotlight, followed by a precipitous fall, but narcissism like this doesn’t tend to weight such cost-benefit outcomes ahead of time. They want what they want, period. For them, the person with power or fame becaome a means to a desired end.

Why We Care

We’re voyeurs. The Onion, known for using satire to get at the heart of an issue, quipped that many Americans were shocked to discover there was a war going on in Afghanistan as they read the lurid headlines about Petraeus and General Allen. We’re titillated both by any story that has to do with sex, but particularly if it has to do with someone’s private lives. We’ve become a nation of gawkers, lingering on the sidelines of life in some cases, just waiting for the next bit of scandal to whet our appetite for the excitement so lacking in our own lives. It’s much easier to jump from one bit of gossip to the next than to deal with being unhappy in our own jobs or relationships. That’s why distraction is a multi-billion dollar industry. We’re addicted to it.

We’re predators. I believe that there are two primal instincts at play regarding our fascination with celebrity. First, we love to watch someone ascend to their top of their game, party because we want to see some of ourselves in them, or maybe because it’s easier to live vicariously through their success than to take the risk ourselves. And we love to align ourselves with those leaders, be they athletes, politicians or hollywood stars, almost as if they’re the alpha in our curious pack. But although we egt some sense of satisfaction out of this association with the powerful, we also get at least an equal amount of pleasure in watching them fall. If both weren’t true, we’d never have had the Roman gladiators, or today’s many iterations, like ultimate fighters or reality show competitors.

It could be us. Would any of our lives withstand the kind of scrutiny applied to someone like the head of the CIA or a NATO commander? As Jesus put it, who among us would be fit to cast the first stone? We all carry our own baggage of one form or another, and there’s some strange thrill in being close to the fire without actually getting burned. Like the first point, we enjoy living through others’ successes and failures sometimes more than actually living our own lives. It’s strangely therapeutic to watch someone else get what we think they deserve, while we continue to live as if we’re above such judgment.

Did any of these men do anything wrong? The jury is still out, so to speak, although the news cycle has already had its fun and we’ve cast our various judgments based on nothing mroe than a handful of provocative headlines, in some cases. But two things are nearly certain. Powerful men will continue to do stupid, unnecessarily risky things that jeopardize their elevated standing, and we’ll be standing by on the periphery, waiting to devour the carcassess as they fall from grace.

About Christian Piatt

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Christian Piatt (www.christianpiatt.com)
Author, Musician, Antagonist. God Nerd. Find Christian on:

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  1. I have to sat, this obsession with the “sex scandal” appears to be far more prominent in anglo-saxon culture than elsewhere. The Brits, and you guys in the US, for some reason you (or your media) go all weird if whatever powerful person has an affair. An I can’t figure out why.

    If my prime minister, or major, or whoever, has an affair, I can see why their spouse and other family would care. But me?I care about their policies and their leadership. And most people in large parts of continental Europe agree. You just could not whip up a frenzy about something like this.

  2. wellokaythen says:

    Has anyone started blaming same-sex marriage yet for “ruining” other people’s marriages? I’m a little surprised Pat Robertson didn’t come out (so to speak) blaming Petraeus’ behavior on the acceptance of same-sex marriage. He blamed the attacks of 9/11 on gays and pro-choicers, so why not blame gay people for these things, too? Clearly the “gay agenda” has destroyed traditional marriage in this country, and Mrs. Petraeus is just one more victim of that insidious movement….

    Let the post hoc fallacies begin.

  3. First, I’m going to be an annoying nerd and split hairs. “Psychopath” doesn’t apply at all, though “sociopath” might a little. Sociopaths break rules and take risks; psychopaths hear voices and think their brain receives signals from outer space (I know you didn’t title the book, Christian). But, really, narcissism is more at play than anything else, I think. Either you have to be a bit narcissistic to think you are capable of leading the world’s largest military force or you become narcissistic because everyone around you convinces you that you can do no wrong. It’s usually a combination of the two. It’s one of the reasons powerful, popular men do things that makes us all go, “How could he be so stupid?” The live in a grandiose, distorted reality where their behavior is justified and they are immune from harm, as you rightly said.

    But I think our own fascination comes from our own narcissism. Our schadenfreude results from a sense that we’re morally to superior to generals, presidents, pro athletes, and celebrities. We didn’t grow up to realize the dreams of our youth, but we can celebrate our moral superiority over those who did.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    I assume there are people who care. The press must have some idea that people want to hear about such things. I think it’s clear that much of the media WANTS me to care or hopes I care about such peccadilloes.

    But, be careful trying to measure people’s interest based on what journalists choose to highlight. What I care about and what the media assumes I care about may be two very different things. Thinking about it from another angle – if no one had any interest in hearing about the Petraeus affair, how would the news media ever discover than no one cares? When did journalism ever act as a direct reflection of what people cared about?

    Another reason why we (might) care is because there may be some unresolvable issues to wrestle with. When there’s some moral ambiguity or difference of interpretation or some judgment call, I think there’s a more interesting story, at least for me. If there’s a simple, easy judgment to make, I find it a much less interesting news item. “Should someone be fired for having an affair?” sounds like a thorny question to me, and the answer is “It depends.” Makes an interesting thought experiment.

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