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Commentary: The Generals and the Women

  • FILE -- In an April 28, 2011 file photo Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington.  The sex scandal that led to CIA Director David Petraeus' downfall widened Tuesday with word the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is under investigation for thousands of alleged "inappropriate communications" with another woman involved in the case.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak/file)

    FILE -- In an April 28, 2011 file photo Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The sex scandal that led to CIA Director David Petraeus' downfall widened Tuesday with word the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is under investigation for thousands of alleged "inappropriate communications" with another woman involved in the case. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak/file)

  • FILE - In this July 11, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Houston, Texas. President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney's campaigns traded accusations of lying Thursday, ratcheting up an already heated race for the White House.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

    FILE - In this July 11, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Houston, Texas. President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney's campaigns traded accusations of lying Thursday, ratcheting up an already heated race for the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

  • This combo made from file photos shows Gen. David Petraeus' biographer and paramour Paula Broadwell, left, and Florida socialite Jill Kelley. Broadwell and Kelley, the two women at the center of David Petraeus' downfall as CIA director, visited the White House separately on various occasions in what appear to be unrelated calls that did not result in meetings with President Barack Obama. (AP Photos/Charlotte Observer, T. Ortega Gaines/AP, Chris O'Meara) LOCAL TV OUT (WSOC, WBTV, WCNC, WCCB); LOCAL PRINT OUT (CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL, CREATIVE LOAFLING, CHARLOTTE WEEKLY, MECHLENBURG TIMES, CHARLOTTE MAGAZINE, CHARLOTTE PARENTS) LOCAL RADIO OUT (WBT)

    This combo made from file photos shows Gen. David Petraeus' biographer and paramour Paula Broadwell, left, and Florida socialite Jill Kelley. Broadwell and Kelley, the two women at the center of David Petraeus' downfall as CIA director, visited the White House separately on various occasions in what appear to be unrelated calls that did not result in meetings with President Barack Obama. (AP Photos/Charlotte Observer, T. Ortega Gaines/AP, Chris O'Meara) LOCAL TV OUT (WSOC, WBTV, WCNC, WCCB); LOCAL PRINT OUT (CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL, CREATIVE LOAFLING, CHARLOTTE WEEKLY, MECHLENBURG TIMES, CHARLOTTE MAGAZINE, CHARLOTTE PARENTS) LOCAL RADIO OUT (WBT)

  • CIA Director David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill  in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to assess current and future national security threats. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

    CIA Director David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to assess current and future national security threats. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • In this Jan. 15, 2012 photo, Paula Broadwell, author of the David Petraeus biography "All In," poses for photos in Charlotte, N.C. Petraeus, the retired four-star general renowned for taking charge of the military campaigns in Iraq and then Afghanistan, abruptly resigned Friday, Nov. 9, 2012 as director of the CIA, admitting to an extramarital affair. Petraeus carried on the affair with Broadwell, according to several U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation. (AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, T. Ortega Gaines) LOCAL TV OUT (WSOC, WBTV, WCNC, WCCB); LOCAL PRINT OUT (CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL, CREATIVE LOAFLING, CHARLOTTE WEEKLY, MECHLENBURG TIMES, CHARLOTTE MAGAZINE, CHARLOTTE PARENTS) LOCAL RADIO OUT (WBT)

    In this Jan. 15, 2012 photo, Paula Broadwell, author of the David Petraeus biography "All In," poses for photos in Charlotte, N.C. Petraeus, the retired four-star general renowned for taking charge of the military campaigns in Iraq and then Afghanistan, abruptly resigned Friday, Nov. 9, 2012 as director of the CIA, admitting to an extramarital affair. Petraeus carried on the affair with Broadwell, according to several U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation. (AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, T. Ortega Gaines) LOCAL TV OUT (WSOC, WBTV, WCNC, WCCB); LOCAL PRINT OUT (CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL, CREATIVE LOAFLING, CHARLOTTE WEEKLY, MECHLENBURG TIMES, CHARLOTTE MAGAZINE, CHARLOTTE PARENTS) LOCAL RADIO OUT (WBT)

  • FILE -- In an April 28, 2011 file photo Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington.  The sex scandal that led to CIA Director David Petraeus' downfall widened Tuesday with word the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is under investigation for thousands of alleged "inappropriate communications" with another woman involved in the case.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak/file)
  • FILE - In this July 11, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Houston, Texas. President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney's campaigns traded accusations of lying Thursday, ratcheting up an already heated race for the White House.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
  • This combo made from file photos shows Gen. David Petraeus' biographer and paramour Paula Broadwell, left, and Florida socialite Jill Kelley. Broadwell and Kelley, the two women at the center of David Petraeus' downfall as CIA director, visited the White House separately on various occasions in what appear to be unrelated calls that did not result in meetings with President Barack Obama. (AP Photos/Charlotte Observer, T. Ortega Gaines/AP, Chris O'Meara) LOCAL TV OUT (WSOC, WBTV, WCNC, WCCB); LOCAL PRINT OUT (CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL, CREATIVE LOAFLING, CHARLOTTE WEEKLY, MECHLENBURG TIMES, CHARLOTTE MAGAZINE, CHARLOTTE PARENTS) LOCAL RADIO OUT (WBT)
  • CIA Director David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill  in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to assess current and future national security threats. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
  • In this Jan. 15, 2012 photo, Paula Broadwell, author of the David Petraeus biography "All In," poses for photos in Charlotte, N.C. Petraeus, the retired four-star general renowned for taking charge of the military campaigns in Iraq and then Afghanistan, abruptly resigned Friday, Nov. 9, 2012 as director of the CIA, admitting to an extramarital affair. Petraeus carried on the affair with Broadwell, according to several U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation. (AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, T. Ortega Gaines) LOCAL TV OUT (WSOC, WBTV, WCNC, WCCB); LOCAL PRINT OUT (CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL, CREATIVE LOAFLING, CHARLOTTE WEEKLY, MECHLENBURG TIMES, CHARLOTTE MAGAZINE, CHARLOTTE PARENTS) LOCAL RADIO OUT (WBT)

If you were to take as gospel truth the press coverage of the twin scandals that have embroiled former general and CIA director David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, you could reach only one conclusion.

The men, far from being savvy adults responsible for their own actions, are hapless victims of the wiles of two women (or should I say, hussies): Paula Broadwell, who had an affair with Petraeus, and Jill Kelly, a Tampa, Fla., woman who exchanged what have been termed flirtatious emails with Gen. Allen.

It’s as if we were in a universe that looks an awful lot like the 1945 Billy Wilder film, Double Indemnity, where Barbara Stanwyck, the sexually voracious floozie, digs her talons into the none-too-bright chump played by Fred MacMurray. MacMurray ends up murdering a man but, well, was it really his fault? Wasn’t he pushed into it by that conniving female schemer?

The last three weeks of frenzied and, in my view, largely atrocious coverage of the scandals have made appallingly clear the outrageous double standard that operates when you’re talking about the behavior of men vs. the behavior of women. It’s 2012, but in reading the reports in the media it might as well be 1952.

Without giving Broadwell and Kelly a carte blanche for their poor judgment, reckless behavior and apparent desire for public notice, I’ve been flabbergasted and depressed by the way stale archetypes have been trotted out, by columnists and reporters both female and male, to explain why the women and men involved behaved as they did. The moral seems to be that the men were foolish or just couldn’t help themselves, while the women were calculating and amoral.

I’m not talking about the tabloids alone, which at least get some marks for honesty; their interest is always prurient and they don’t pretend otherwise. It’s the writing in the most respected newspapers in the country — the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times — that has had me on the verge of apoplexy. With some exceptions ( New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote an astute dissection of the free-for-all) the press accounts and headlines have fallen over themselves to round up every possible unflattering or vaguely salacious adjective with which to portray the two women involved.

The two generals are routinely described as “distinguished,” “talented,” “accomplished” and “over-achievers.” Theirs is a sad “fall from grace,” while the women are described as “social climbers” desperate to vault up a ladder of success; their fall is hardly as dramatic as the men’s, and their lives and careers are, by implication, much less valuable. If their lives are in ruin, they have only themselves to blame; no real disapproval attaches to the men in these affairs.

There are some token slaps on the wrist — Petraeus has been a naughty boy; Gen. Allen shouldn’t have flirted by email — but nothing approaching the animus and mockery directed at the women. Oh, Petraeus is taken to task for his appetite for publicity, his fondness for showing off his numerous medals, but no moral opprobrium attaches to him the way it has to Broadwell, who is being written about as if she were Lilith, Eve and Bathsheba wrapped up one irresistible package.

Here’s a sampling of prose culled from headlines and reports from the Post, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Daily Beast.

From the Washington Post : “Broadwell began a full-bore effort to remake herself as a highly visible player”; “Broadwell appeared willing to take full advantage of her special access”; “Her form-fitting clothes made a lasting impression on longtime Afghan hands, and Petraeus once admonished her, through a staffer, to ‘dress down,’ a former aide recalled.”; “She was seemingly immune to the notion of modesty in this part of the world; “Beware the woman who goes on The Daily Show wearing a black silk halter top and flaunting her toned triceps.”; “Of course Petraeus is responsible for his misconduct; my point was that he should have looked at her and known better.”; “Although she’s known for months about potential trouble via the FBI investigation, she had planned a birthday dinner last week at the superb — and very, very expensive — Inn at Little Washington.”

From the New York Times : “She was seen as ambitious and a striver”; “In television interviews, Ms. Broadwell — a Petraeus biographer whose affair with him led to his resignation on Friday as director of central intelligence — appears assertive and confident, appearing on The Daily Show sporting bare, toned arms that have been the subject of considerable comment on Twitter and elsewhere.”

From the Daily Beast : “Broadwell, the attractive brunette with the expressive green eyes. ... studied Arabic in the Middle East — Jordan in particular — and specialized in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and geopolitical analysis. This is not a field that includes many women, so the stunning Broadwell likely stood out among her peers.”

From the Los Angeles Times : “What man ... wouldn’t jump at the chance to get it on with a vixen like Petraeus’ mistress, Paula Broadwell , a pretty West Point-bred fitness buff brimming with self-confidence and blessed with 13% body fat?”; “It turns out Broadwell is the hot mess here. ... She seems to be saddled, like Petraeus, with a crippling sense of hubris, accustomed to success, unable to stomach losing.” “High-achieving women not primed for loss just might be the most determined and irrational.” “Petraeus was brought down by his naivete.”; “Petraeus’ boundless career and sterling reputation is in tatters.”

Petraeus is judged by the Los Angeles Times columnist — a woman — to be “naive.” Naive isn’t a word I would use to characterize the former general, a man who, through dint of his own intelligence, effort and assiduous cultivation of the people in power, rose to the highest level of the military. But it’s significant that he’s depicted that way, while Broadwell is “a hot mess.”

Jill Kelley doesn’t get off lightly either. In an article from the Tampa Times which ran in this newspaper, she’s portrayed this way: “Kelley, the wife of a cancer surgeon, has a thin resume, a troubled family, shaky finances and a reputation for being, as one acquaintance here put it, “Tampa Kardashian.” ... Her constant presence caused some officers’ aides to worry about the appearance of an attractive, outgoing woman cozying up to senior military leaders.”

Is being attractive and outgoing a crime? That seems to be implied. What if you flipped the gender here and made the sentence about Allen? “His constant presence at Jill Kelly’s side caused his aides to worry about the appearance of the handsome, outgoing general cozying up to her.”

Here’s the sad fact: you’ll almost never see a sentence like that about a man in any media unless you’re reading about a movie star, because men in that position are judged by what they do, not how they look or whether they use their sexual charisma to their advantage.

And lest you think that Broadwell and Kelly are the only women being weighed on appearance, I refer you to the unkind commentary about Gen. Petraeus’s wife Molly. Writes the same Los Angeles Times columnist: “Petraeus’ wife, Holly, seems to have, to put it gently, let herself go. Commentators have had a field day with her weight, her gray hair, her frumpy wardrobe.” The implication there, of course, is that she is somehow to blame for her husband straying because she “let herself go.”

You see the same thread running through these accounts: Allen and Petraeus are never portrayed in physical terms, but in terms of their intellect and achievements. If they dined out at a swell establishment, like the Inn at Little Washington, where they would expect to pay a small fortune, no mention was made of it — and no mention will ever be made of it, because they’re men in positions of power who are expected to act accordingly.

If they’ve burnished their resumes, it doesn’t attract the same level of jaundiced scrutiny as the women’s resumes do. If they lapped up female attention, or sought it out, they’re doing what powerful men do. When a man is ambitious, that’s not only laudable but expected; when a woman is ambitious, Danger ahead!

I did find at least one venue that apportioned the blame somewhat differently. “Is General John Allen aware that there is a war on-going in Afghanistan? Apparently not. Perhaps if he paid more attention to the Taliban and less attention to sending 30,000 pages of E-mail to Tampa socialite Jill Kelly, the NATO effort might be showing more signs of success. At the same time, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s secret detention facility, located within the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, might still exist today if the CIA’s Director was not so infatuated with his illicit paramour Paula Broadwell.”

This is from the website for the Kabul Press Organization in Afghanistan. And while one press account is hardly conclusive, what does it say when a report from Afghanistan, a country not noted for its open-minded views on women, is more even-handed than the reporting in the U.S.?

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.