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Scandal-seeking

Nov 29, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Reverence for David Petraeus has painted his tempted critics into corner

The curious case of retired Gen. David Petraeus has Washington's accuse-and-blame machine in a tizzy. Those who thrive in it might end up having to stand down, unsatisfied.

It turns out the easy part was the revelation of Petraeus's extramarital affair and subsequent resignation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a job he had held for barely a year after his much-celebrated retirement as the Army's most-famous and acclaimed general.

Perhaps still stinging from election day, some in Congress went looking for a bigger scandal than simple adultery. Had it been anyone but Petraeus, they might have been able to drum up something with staying power. As it is, however, that has proved difficult.

The main problem, if it could be called that, is that Petraeus has been such a hero to those who normally would jump at the chance to rip one of President Obama's political appointees to shreds at the first whiff of scandal. But the general rose to power, fame and eminence in the George W. Bush administration. Republicans always have championed him relentlessly and defended him ferociously. When Obama took over, Petraeus was described by some as the "grown-up" in the room who could advise and counsel the untested Obama. The language was similar to that applied to Dick Cheney when he became George Bush's vice president. This was one Obama appointee Republicans approved of.

A memorable example of the reverence for Petraeus came in 2007, when the liberal rabble-rousing group MoveOn.org paid for some national advertisements labeling Petraeus as "General Betray Us" after he gave testimony before Congress.

The response from Petraeus's legion of supporters was among the most vociferous and indignant seen in our time. Media outlets that ran the ads were targeted for boycotts, their management slapped with labels such as unpatriotic, disloyal, even traitorous.

Condemnations were entered into the record by dozens of members of Congress. Pressure was put on boards of directors and stockholders of the corporations that owned the offending publications. MoveOn.org's personnel were threatened and harassed. And many cable TV talk shows and Internet chatterboxes were apoplectic.

All because Gen. David Petraeus had been criticized. In many, many spheres of influence -- on both sides of the political aisle -- that simply was not permitted. He was that good, that unimpeachable, that revered.

That makes it tough a few years later to mount a scandal campaign. When you can't very well attack the central figure, you have to go looking for ulterior explanations for the resignation.

And there have been many. Consider: Petraeus must have been forced out because he had clashed with the Obama administration on Iraq policy or Afghanistan policy. He must have been fired secretly because he was about to blow the whistle on misconduct related to the Benghazi terrorist attack. He was quitting because he planned to run for president in 2016 as a Republican and wanted to distance himself from Obama. He was quitting because he was going to run for president in 2016 as a Democrat and wanted four years to be mentored by Obama outside the full public glare. He was ill. He wanted to join the Army again. He was about to get a TV talk show.

On and on it went, except that so far it really hasn't gone much of anywhere. The scandal-seekers have painted themselves into a corner thanks to their idolization of Petraeus.

Oddly, one explanation rarely has been mentioned during the frenzied search for a larger problem tied to the Petraeus resignation, and it demonstrates the state of mind of too many leaders in Washington: What if Petraeus resigned for exactly the reason he said he did?

What if he actually is as honorable and upstanding as everyone always said he was? What if he truly believed that being an adulterous husband really was conduct unbecoming of both a general and a high-ranking government official?

What if there was no bigger scandal? What if Petraeus simply did what he thought was right?

That possibility appears to have escaped too many people in Washington. And that might be the real scandal.

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