Knocking our heroes off their pedestals

File Photo: Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency General David Petraeus. His record as a public servant has been tainted by a personal...
File Photo: Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency General David Petraeus. His record as a public servant has been tainted by a personal...
Jim Urquhart/Reuters/Files

Former CIA Director and retired General David Petraeus testified Friday about the attack in Benghazi that cost the lives of four Americans. Although classified materials were discussed and the sessions are closed, it was reported that Petraeus said, predictably, that the assault was a premeditated terrorist attack and not the spontaneous event falsely reported by the White House and UN Ambassador Susan Rice.

The White House has begun to conduct an ex post facto explanation that is similarly unbelievable, arguing that when the classified information is extracted, what is left is that the attack was spontaneous. This is patent nonsense, as anyone with ground combat experience can attest.

Meanwhile, there continues to be speculation that announcement of Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell was delayed for political advantage. Even if that were the case, how either Romney or Obama would have benefitted from earlier disclosure is hard to fathom.

The FBI knew about the affair as early as June, but Attorney General Eric Holder says that he withheld the information from President Obama because there were no security implications. It may be true that there are no security issues here, but it is not believable that Holder would fail to report to the president that somebody as highly placed as Petraeus had an embarrassing personal secret that would create banner headlines when it eventually became publicized. That Holder is being economical with the truth is the most gracious thing that can be said of his explanation.

What has persisted in the public discourse, however, is astonishment at the affair. Like most surprising and unpleasant news, we can’t believe it. For four decades David Petraeus was a model of military dedication and personal rectitude and the ideal toward which thousands of soldiers worked. His splendid service as a leader cemented the public’s admiration of the military as the most highly respected institution in America.

And some are having a hard time understanding why a purely personal matter, as morally corrupt as it is, should necessarily result in Petraeus’ resignation. Soon after the announcement, Dianne Feinstein and many others complained that the resignation had deprived the United States of a talented official whose prodigious governmental skills were particularly needed now, at a time when we face significant threats.

The implicit suggestion is that officials’ personal lives should be their own, but of course that’s not possible. We are in the midst of a revolution in the distribution of information—anything and everything can be available.

We can grouse about a loss of privacy so complete that the FBI can, with little or even no justification, lay its hands on whatever it wants, but so far that is the price we pay for the ease with which we can converse, do business or waste time online. The days are long gone when the public was completely ignorant of Franklin Roosevelt’s paraplegia and Dwight Eisenhower’s affair with his chauffeur and secretary, Kay Summersby.

While nobody can properly claim that Petraeus was in any way justified in his actions, the whole sad business highlights a serious fault in human perception. Although evidence proves that many officials are immoral, or crooks, or worse, we still hope for the best and expect a level of behavior that we are unlikely to get.

We expect flawlessness, and when we get anything less than that, we are shocked and saddened. We know that perfection is unattainable, and still insist on it. And more than that: expecting perfection restrictively conflates personal perfection and public good. If we insist on the former, we will not get the latter.