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Doyle McManus: Petraeus, the comeback general
November 28, 2012
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General David H. Petraeus, long the most famous overachiever in the US Army, is already on his way to a new career distinction: breaking the land speed record for rehabilitation from a scandal.

It was only two weeks ago that Petraeus resigned from his job as director of the CIA after it became clear that his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, couldn’t be kept under wraps.

The dust hasn’t settled yet on the chaos kicked up by the FBI’s discovery of the affair, touched off by Broadwell’s jealousy of another woman who liked men in uniform. Did Petraeus allow Broadwell to put unauthorised hands on classified information? Did the US commander in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, say anything indiscreet in emails to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley? Does the shirtless FBI agent get away scot-free? And did all this madcap socialising affect anyone’s performance on their day jobs?

Never mind. We’re a fast-moving society – and, it appears, a forgiving one. At home in suburban Virginia, Petraeus is no doubt still making amends to his high-achieving wife. But in the larger world, the retired general is already contending with an avalanche of opportunities for his next big job.

He’s had offers to teach from at least four universities and had conversations about seats on corporate boards. He’s thinking about giving speeches, writing a book on leadership or even becoming a talking head on television.

And that’s not all.

“Down the road, a return to public service isn’t out of the question,” a friend who talked with Petraeus told me last week. Not as an elected politician but as a potential Cabinet officer in a future administration.

“He just doesn’t see himself as a politician,” the friend said. “He sees himself in the vein of George C. Marshall more than Dwight D. Eisenhower.” That would be General Marshall, who was Army chief of staff during World War II, became secretary of state under Harry S. Truman and won the Nobel Peace Prize for rebuilding postwar Europe.

So Petraeus is still aiming high.

And, characteristically, he’s being strategic. He hired Washington superlawyer Robert B. Barnett, who helped Bill Clinton and George W. Bush make the transition to the private sector.

He’s getting encouragement from politicians too. “He is one of our brightest and our best,” Senators Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week. “There is no counter to that.”

The public seems to agree. Petraeus’ esteem among ordinary Americans was knocked down a peg by the revelation of the affair, Gallup reported last week, but it’s still solidly in positive territory, better than philanderers John Edwards or Tiger Woods – and even a little better than Mitt Romney, who merely lost an election.

But Petraeus isn’t entirely out of the woods yet. The FBI is still investigating whether Broadwell was given unauthorised access to classified documents by Petraeus or his staff in Afghanistan. The CIA’s inspector general is quietly looking into whether Petraeus did anything else untoward during his 14 months at the head of the agency, aimed mostly at averting any unpleasant surprises. And Congress, in its wisdom, may yet find something in the scandal to chew over.

But Petraeus appears likely to go down in history as a beneficiary of what you might call the Bill Clinton rule: adultery is no longer a disqualifier in American politics.

Petraeus already understood that; he didn’t resign until it became clear that the affair would become public and lead to months of investigations. Even then, he didn’t resign until his titular boss, National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper, told him to.

There was a time when an extramarital affair was almost automatically the end of the high-ambition trail. Gary Hart had to abandon a presidential campaign in 1988 after he spent a weekend on a yacht with a model. He’s done useful work since, notably as co-chairman of a commission that warned – before Sept. 11, 2001 – that terrorist attacks against the United States were likely. But he’s never been nominated to a Cabinet job.

By this year, though, Newt Gingrich could run for the Republican presidential nomination without his tangled personal history standing in the way.  Gingrich’s three marriages didn’t help him among social conservatives, but they weren’t the main reason he fell short: he got out-debated and outspent by Romney.

Does this mean voters – or senators voting to confirm a Cabinet nominee – no longer care about a candidate’s private life?

Hardly. Human curiosity still knows no bounds. And powerful people whose misbehaviour exceeds garden-variety adultery – John Edwards, I’m thinking of you – still face disqualification.

In short, we’re not France – yet. But we’re no longer Puritan America either. Petraeus’ second chance, if he gets it, will prove the point.

MCT

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