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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Richard Cohen's Confusion on Petraeus/Broadwell

I can't hope to be comprehensive about the scandal here; there's too much going on, and there are plenty of outlets reporting it.  But I'll still comment on things that catch my eye from time to time.  I resisted until this minute saying anything about Richard Cohen's piece in the Washington Post, in which he wonders what all the fuss is about, and basically says that Petraeus shouldn't have resigned.

I like Cohen's writing.  He usually has a perspective on things that neither the left nor the right have thought of, and I often get a lot out of reading him.  But not this time.  This time he seems to have had a flashback to the Clinton sex scandal, and thinks that the view that got him through that one (that its ok to lie about sex, since that's what one does), can get him through this one too.

One of his central points is this:

"We went through a disgraceful attempt at a presidential coup with Bill Clinton, who was accused of lying about sex — imagine! — but survived to become a widely admired elder statesmen [sic]."

But this is where Cohen has never seen the forest for the trees.  He focuses only on the individual and what happened to the individual, as opposed to what happened to the country.  Long before the Republicans took the whole thing too far, good, decent liberals were saying they saw no choice for Clinton but to resign.  And they were right -- if he had resigned, Marc Rich would still be a fugitive,  Al Gore would have been President, we could have started focusing on Al Qaeda sooner, 9/11 might not have happened, and even if it did, we would NOT have invaded Iraq as a result, and certainly not while cutting taxes across the Board, especially for millionaires.  And the Copyright Term Extension Act might not have passed (it passed while we were all thinking about Monica Lewinsky's dress).  Yes, Clinton has become an "admired statesman";' but seriously, he could have done that if he had just resigned rather than lie to the country and provoke the Republicans the way he did.  I, for one, would have admired him even more than I do now (and yes, I do admire what he is doing, and if you read my posts above, you'll see I greatly admired his convention speech this year).

It's not clear exactly why Cohen thinks Petraeus is still fit to run the CIA.  I think James Clapper is in a better position to know, and Clapper told Petraeus to resign.

True, I don't know what Clapper knows, but I have to assume it's more than what Cohen does.  What we have from Cohen is this:

"I have a glancing familiarity with Petraeus. I found him frank and personable — not at all what I expected. I have long maintained that a man of 60 who has no body fat is not to be trusted — but I found Petraeus to be the exception, a rebuff to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. (“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”) Alas for Petraeus, he did not think enough. Such men are fools."

Kind of a rambling paragraph; looks like an excuse to quote Shakespeare, and an attempt to prove Shakespeare wrong.  Not exactly successful -- all Cohen has is a glancing familiarity with Petraeus; there were many who knew Cassius who might well have found him "frank and personable."  And just because Petraeus has low body fat, that doesn't mean he has a "lean and hungry look."  In the end of the paragraph, I think he is calling Petraeus a "fool," unless it's another literary allusion.

Ok, so Richard Cohen thinks Petraeus is "frank and personable," albeit (per Cohen) demonstrably a fool.  Put him back at the head of the CIA!  Again, I'll take Clapper's judgment any time.

Cohen then recites a long list of politicians who have gotten away with or been caught in extra-marital affairs:  Clinton, Robert Livingston, Newt Gingrich, David Vitter, John. F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, Warren Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower (allegedly) and Lyndon Johnson.  After the list, he says: "These matters can hurt." and then he moves on to to another unrelated paragraph.

That paragraph is an excuse to quote novelist Nelson Algren’s three rules of life: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”  And to remind us that Algren himself  hooked up with Simone de Beauvoir.  Another imperfect match -- he seems to think that Broadwell's troubles were worse than Petraeus's, but what do we know of the troubles of either?  His idea of Broadwell's "troubles" seem to be the fact that she sent those emails and promoted her oddly-titled book in a way that in hindsight seems suggestive.  But those aren't "troubles" in the sense that Algren was thinking.

After these rambles, we get to the res:

"But now that it has all been done, is there a better man to fill Petraeus’s CIA seat than Petraeus himself? He is blackmail-proof and more than qualified for the job. He not only was a four-star general, a West Point grad (top 5 percent of his class) and a Princeton scholar but, in the quite recent past, he held the director’s job himself. The United States would not only be getting the best man for the job but also striking a blow against the sexual McCarthyism that has destroyed so many careers and, in wretched silence, has aborted many a political career before it was even announced.

At dinner one night, I sat opposite Holly Petraeus. She’s charming and deeply concerned about the welfare of our troops — both active and retired. I can only imagine her hurt. But this is her matter — and her husband’s — and not ours. He betrayed her, not his country. No more need be said. Now get back to work."

Again missing the point by focusing on the individuals, not the country, and not even the specific conduct at issue (not just the sex, but whatever went with it).  And also missing the point by saying that Petraeus is the best man for the job.  We DON'T KNOW THAT.  His resume is paper-thin on intelligence; he's a political appointee for goodness sake.  And his idea of a "covert" operation was to let his lover share his gmail account.  Not exactly the kind of instinct I'm looking for in a spymaster.

And what makes Cohen think that just because we now know of one indiscretion with one slightly unbalanced woman that there haven't been, or won't be, more?  Take a look at Jill Kelley.  So far, affair denied.  But it seems a bit premature to believe that, given what we are beginning to learn about her, and her biological twin.  And it's interesting that Petraeus allowed himself to be pressured into a writing a letter to the Court in the twin's custody case, basically putting his reputation behind the most unbalanced woman in the mix.  I'm not saying he was blackmailed into doing that, but I don't know why he did it.  A true straightshooter -- as Petraeus has always purported to be -- would not have done it, at least not on the facts that we've heard so far.  

And finally, I have to say something about Cohen's reference to "sexual McCarthyism" having destroyed careers.  You don't get to call something McCarthyism when the underlying facts were true.  McCarthy's problem was that he saw communists everywhere and nobody was safe.  Whether your sexual conduct results in a public fiasco or not depends on you -- either you abstain, or you have the good sense to pick someone who won't let the cat out of the bag!

Ok, so Cohen glancingly met Petraeus, and found his wife to be charming and concerned about the troops.  But Clapper knows intelligence and he knows what was in Petraeus's emails, and he knows Petraeus better than Cohen does.  I'll take Clapper's judgment any day of the week.

I want to be cautious in characterizing the women here, but I'm sorry, I have a feeling that both Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley might be just a little bit . . . unbalanced (there, I've used that word three times; can't think of a synonym).  I could be wrong, but again, Clapper knows more than I do.

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