Tips for toads: don’t philander on digital media.

This article, inspired by David Petraeus’s resignation from the CIA, is supremely silly.  Its major premise is that “there would seem to be nothing new about the weakness of otherwise powerful Washington figures in the face of temptation. But that is not precisely true: the difference these days is that it is virtually impossible to get away with it.

Here’s my take as a professional historian, friends:

  1. First of all, all of the historical cases cited are cited because in spite of the fact that they happened before 1990, we know about them anyway.  Sally Hemings was an issue in both the 1800 and the 1804 presidential campaigns.  Alexander Hamilton published a pamphlet in which he confessed to his affair with Maria Reynolds.  Clearly, the non-digital partisan press of the turn of the nineteenth century was enough to press the issue of sexual morality and political virtue more than two centuries ago.
  2. Secondly, if people are using their Twitter or email accounts to send raunchy photos or arrange trysts–something you’d think the nation’s top spy of all people would know to avoid–then of course it’s going to be easy to discover and trace.
  3. So here’s my advice:  if you want to get up to some nasty, immoral, and/or extramarital sex thing, don’t use e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, blogs to communicate, and don’t even text the object of your nasty desires or about your nasty desires.  Just don’t.  We don’t want to hear about it, and speaking as a historian, I can guarantee you that although your reputation as a public official might survive your nasty sex scandal, you probably don’t want people sniggering and making jokes about it for the next few decades, or centuries.
  4. Gratuitous personal interjection:  People say Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, and this may be a big part of the problem.  (I’m kind of surprised that no one has written about this before.  Have you seen a picture of David Petraeus?  Does he look like anyone’s dream boyfriend?  Jeezus.)  The men who have got caught recently are men who probably didn’t have girlfriends or boyfriends in High School or college, so my bet is that they’re extremely easy marks as middle-aged (and older) men when people flirt with them.  If more of them were getting their knobs polished at a developmentally appropriate age and stage of life, then my bet is that they’d be able to handle the flattery and sexual overtures they get as congressmen, presidents, and agency heads.  I’m just sayin’.

Quite frankly, the sex neither surprises nor disturbs me much.  It’s the stupid.  And that’s why Petraeus had to resign:  it’s not the sex (although I’m sure he violated some military codes of conduct in that as well–it’s the stupid.  Once more, and with feeling!)

24 thoughts on “Tips for toads: don’t philander on digital media.

  1. Snicker, snicker! Actually, I think arrogance is as big a factor as teh stupid, particularly among those whose asses have been kissed for such a long time.


  2. Petraeus shouldn’t have resigned. Republicans don’t resign because sex scandals unless they gay and forced to. Sex is a private matter and Petraeus didn’t use a CIA email. Let’s all grow up, we all know that when sex is involved the brain isn’t the command center.

    Are you convinced about knob polishing? I am not.


  3. I think that sexual experience works to demystify sex for many if not most people. I think that most Americans share the bourgeois ideal of monogamous marriage, rather than the aristocratic ideal (which is basically only an entitlement of elite men not equally shared with elite women.)

    Therefore I think people who are the marrying kind in general are better off with some sexual experience before marriage so as to help avoid/put into perspective flirtations with others that may arise after marriage.


  4. I think the reason many affairs get uncovered is less because people write stuff, but because people are actually quite good at reading body language, and so know to look for the writing. A lot of historical affairs came out because of observing eyes – servants, nosy neighbours and social equals – who then went digging for more, and, they did so, because for much of western history ‘sexual immorality’ has been viewed as a topic of public interest (reflecting on character, social morality and also the success of the nation).

    I’ve never quite decided whether ‘high-falutin’ people are more likely to have affairs than the general pop, or that we are just more interested in their infidelities. Sexual infidelity is really quite a popular hobby and (amongst those who value it) people seem very good at justifying why their behaviour is ‘exceptional’ and not tawdry like everyone else.

    As a historian who works in this area however, I strongly encourage everyone to leave large and long trails of their sexual infidelities, because it makes my life so much more interesting.


  5. The reason why, I imagine, Petraeus would have been expected to resign by the CIA is less about the sex itself, than the security protocols. Formal sexual partners (spouses, de facto etc) are usually vetted for security reasons, but an illicit affair leaves someone open to exploitation by those seeking confidential information- as we’ve all watched enough James Bond to know that pillow talk is the best way to get the good stuff.


  6. Feminist Avatar is right — it’s not about the sex iself, but the security violation. Even roommates are an issue, so CIA folks who need someone to share the rent almost always live with other CIA folks of the same clearance level. IIRC, my friend was even hooked up with her roommates via a CIA roommate-finding system. And when she applied, she had to give a list of people who knew her best, supposedly as character references, but I was on that list and never contacted, so I’m pretty sure there’s a CIA background check file on me somewhere. An affair, given its secrecy, violates all of this procedure.

    And I LOL’d at this, Historiann: “Have you seen a picture of David Petraeus? Does he look like anyone’s dream boyfriend? Jeezus.” I said almost exactly the same thing to Bullock when the story broke.


  7. I’d read that the woman involved had threatened another woman over Petraeus. This other woman then went to the FBI and, by that point, it had become unendurable mmisbehaviour, I imagine:–general-petraeus-resignation-fbi-chanced-upon-affair-reportedly-with-biographer-paula-broadwell

    Otherwise, be an adult about your sexual and emotional behaviours people and if you can’t be, at least attempt discretion. Geez!


  8. I’d hafta say that Gouverneur Morris was about the ugliest, or un-comeliest, guy to endanger national security by his romantic and sexual carryings-on, as American envoy to France during the Revolution there (c. 1792-1794). And he wrote most of it down in his diary, he was involved in so many awkward economic transactions, and his residence/office was so porous with official and non-official beseechers that I’m surprised somebody didn’t just grab the diary and upload it to the Atlantic oceansphere. This was at about exactly when Hamilton was back in Pennsylvania carrying on with Reynolds. I guess these guys all gave each other cover by giving each other cover: they were all guys and that’s what you did.(Morris was not married at the time, it should be said). In related developments, Maureen Dowd seems to be saying in the NYT today that the patriarchal equilibrium came to an end this last Tuesday, which I think is pretty much of a stretch.

    In the 18th century, anything you wanted to “hit send” on was committed to paper, sealed with a daub of red wax, and given to somebody to take to the next rest stop, so I guess brazenness was the best thing they could come up with as opposed to, say, discretion.


  9. The security violation is the problem. I wish them both well, but the cynic in me whispers that he’ll be back after about a two-year period (sans the customary “rehab”) having announced that “healing” has taken place, just in time for the midterm elections. I hope I’m wrong.


  10. It seems to me that there are two types of men who get involved in sexual scandals. One type is H’ann’s interpretation of Petraeus — a man who is flattered by attention he perhaps didn’t get earlier in life. But there is also the Bill Clinton/JFK model, of men who are obviously very attractive and have a whole string of affairs. What ties them together is not the attractiveness (or not) of the men, or their early sexual experience, but that some people find power very attractive. I would imagine too that when you’re in Washington, you get lots of abuse as well as admiration, so it must be nice to have someone tell you you are doing things right.


  11. Power, money, beauty and success seem to stimulate the feeling of entitlement. Petraeus is not exceptional in that. “[T]he bourgeois ideal of monogamous marriage” is an ideal in constant attack by the 21st century reality of most people. Furthermore, “demystify sex” doesn’t make sex less desirable and the feeling of entitlement any weaker.

    Personally, I will refrain from advising family morality. Doing otherwise seems to me to be pretentious and arrogant. Otherwise, however, I see Petraeus’ transgression equivalent to a speeding ticket.


  12. Susan–I think JFK follows the aristocratic entitlement model. (It was just a bonus, I suppose, that he was better looking than most U.S. senators and presidents.) But Clinton was a chubby band geek in high school! He’s exactly the kind of guy I’m talking about.

    Although I will grant you: he is more appealing than Petraeus!


  13. Obama’s ambivalence about accepting the resignation is interesting considering their complicated history with each other–even the national security/intelligence bench must be deeper than that. To say nothing of the fact that the president was only about the 113th person in the executive branch to learn about the maelstrom engulfing the guy with his finger on the drone triggers (and granting that this thing broke on election day).

    The other interesting angle in the Times today, I thought, was that the Petraeuses (he married the daughter of the superintendent at West Point from the time he was a cadet there) seemingly had been presented within military culture as a kind of resilient couple of the sort who could hang in and ride out the stresses and strains of marital life in the context of constant deployments, rampant careerism, and the like. When that narrative blew–considering the strains of military culture in an age of multi-front wars and post-traumatic crises–I guess it was sort of like there goes that franchise.


  14. I did meet one of the DC previous sex scandal people in person (post sex-scandal). He doesn’t seem like much over the tv or in pictures, but in person he looks at you like you are the most important person in the world and all of a sudden you want his babies. I would not be surprised if Petraeus also has charisma that doesn’t come across in print media.

    Also, I have a hard time believing that John Edwards wanted for girlfriends in high school and college.

    No, I think it’s more likely what the Willpower book talks about– these guys make too many decisions each day, are often sleep-deprived, and are used to being in control. The combination leads to poor judgment and risk taking via loss of willpower.


  15. ZOMG!!11!!!1 You met Thomas Jefferson! That is so cool.

    Good point about the willpower thesis. I can believe that in the case of presidents and major agency chiefs like Petraeus, but maybe not so much for your average congressman. After all, they’ve delegated a lot of their work to lobbyists, so their lives are mostly just dialing for dollars.

    Edwards is an anomaly. I don’t think he was a career horndog, just one with really, really shitty timing. (At least, I assume that if he were a career horndog that all of the other women would have come crawling out of the woodwork after his spectacular fall.)

    You have to feel kind of sorry for him in that respect–some guys do it all of the time and never get caught. Maybe that’s the curse of his good looks: people found it less plausible that he was a faithful husband, whereas if he looked like David Brooks or someone like that, you’d figure he was lucky to have a wife at all, let alone suspect him of horndogging.


  16. speeding ticket

    I suppose that whether or not cheating on a partner is equivalent to speeding depends on what promises were made and how seriously the partners take whatever “commitment” they made. If you feel you need to cheat on a partner, fine, but be willing to accept the consequences, whatever they may be (yes, I see the ironic nature of that statement).


  17. After reading a profile in the Washington Post, I still can’t decide if Petraeus is a really smart guy who screwed up (in a big way) once, or a narcissist/megalomaniac who finally lost control and began to believe he was entitled to do whatever he wanted. There might be some parallel questions about the program he was overseeing: the U.S.’s use of drones.

    The Jefferson/Hemings story is really complicated. Even if you can get past the whole slavery/power/consent issue (which I can’t), you’re then faced with the fact that Sally was his late (and, by all accounts, much-loved) wife’s half-sister, which either makes his attraction to her a bit more understandable, or even more icky, or perhaps both. Add in the fact that Sally was (at least theoretically) in Paris to care for Jefferson’s daughters (i.e. her nieces), and one has to wonder what living in that household was like for quite a number of people. The whole situation makes the Clinton-Lewinsky whatever-it-was look simple, and Petraeus’ adventure downright mundane (except, yes, for the stupidity, and related security breach, which is, indeed, the issue).

    If one wants to get really convoluted, one could argue that Petraeus at least subconsciously needed a reason to resign so that he could investigate other possibilities (including political ones; I think it’s reasonable to guess that he could, with time, recover from this, since the stupidity doesn’t seem to have led to any actual bad consequences except to his reputation and, perhaps, his marriage. While he was stupid, he was not as colosally stupid as some others mentioned in the comments above; for one thing, I’ve seen no suggestion that he attempted a coverup, which is how both Clinton and Edwards really got themselves in trouble).


  18. I don’t know if recovery is likely. Based on the sketchy information I would put money on their being a second woman out there who he was involved with that got the threatening phone calls. The military also doesn’t really forgive cheating on your army brat wife who has invested a lot of time in helping military families.


  19. The worst I can see for Petraeus is a hedge fund somewhere or as a cable commentator. The two women will be left to slug it out on a midnight runway somewhere, like when that astronaut was two-timing his fellow traveler on the space shuttle and a navy flier from Florida and then probably walked into management. The media eats that kind of stuff up like rock candy. The brat wife has notable military ancestors going back to the American Revolution, so truly, he can probably forget about the distinguished visiting professorship at the Point, as well as the presidency of Princeton they were drumbeating for him just a few weeks ago.


  20. I don’t know, New England Nat: contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who perhaps didn’t live long enough to have his own second and third acts, American lives are always about the next reinvention. I wouldn’t shed tears over Petraeus’s career–as Indyanna predicts, the worst he can do is a pretty good unemployment backup plan compared to what most people can look forward to after being fired at age 60.

    About Mrs. Petraeus: I don’t know anything about her beyond what the media have reported, but I found it interesting that she was the daughter of a general at West Point when she met her husband. By most accounts, that was the beginning of David Petraeus’s brilliant career. My Mother in Law is the daughter of a very highly ranked officer in what was the Royal Canadian Navy. She has told me that she never, ever dated Navy men precisely because she feared they only wanted to take her out to advance their own careers and she was adamant that she wouldn’t be used in that fashion.


  21. Being powerful puts people in a bubble. Few are willing to endure the criticism and alternate views that would burst that. And hubris will bite you in the back.

    “It’s not the sex–it’s the stupid.” And often, for the Republicans, it’s the hypocrisy.


  22. The way we’ll know the fix is in: Mrs. Petraeus will be the successful graduate of a makeover and weight-loss program.

    For men at the top, you see, they never fail; they can only be failed.

    And this isn’t about the thousands of people who can be killed by Administration whim, that Petraeus participated in through the CIA’s own drone program; it’s about a gal who not only had an affair, but refused to go quietly when he ended it. So if it’s a speeding ticket, who exactly committed the moving violation, and who’s going to court?


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