Notes on Petraeus et al: a shabby tale of strivers, over-achievers and hangers-on *

By now, the entire country, give or take a few, knows about the affair between former CIA chief and four-star general David Petraeus and author and army reservist Paula Broadwell. And I think it's safe to say that pretty much everyone is familiar with the name "Jill Kelley," but just to recap: she's the woman who contacted the FBI after receiving troubling emails from someone who seemed to be aware of where she was at certain times and how she seemed to present herself. That person has apparently turned out to be Paula Broadwell.

Yes, this is a story of an affair that has jumped the track, bringing down the lovers and leading to the implosion of two careers and counting. But it also is a near-perfect image of a shabbiness which runs through American culture - and I'm not talking about relationships that erupt outside of boundaries and become the stuff of James M. Cain stories. I am referring to some elements of this episode that suggest something amiss in the two women around whom the whole thing pivots. These things render them creatures of our time in the most mediocre of ways and, I think, are the subterranean flow in the story at large, feeding it not with refreshing currents but murk and desperation.

First, let us consider the image on the driveway of Broadwell's two-story home in an upper middle-class neighborhood of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was either drawn in chalk or "power-washed" (whatever that means and depending on which reports one reads, although for sure "power" is today's watchword), and it says "Dad Hearts Mom." Except the heart is drawn and it really says "heart's" ; apparently there is an apostrophe after the heart and before the "s."

Now let me say that I realize bad spelling is no stranger to America. And when it comes to apostrophe use, very few among us know how and when to deploy them any more - or perhaps those who do just aren't expressing themselves as frequently in social media, including driveways, as those who don't. In addition, I realize that the Broadwell children - if they wrote this, and not their father in their stead - can be excused. But the teacher who taught them how to spell cannot, and nor can the atmosphere in general, which has led to this state of affairs - and you can bet that there is more than one house in the neighborhood with a mailbox that proclaims "this mailbox belongs to the Smith's."

However, the problem here is the shabbiness conveyed by something so seemingly innocuous as the misspelling on the driveway. Paula Broadwell is a highly accomplished and educated woman, with several degrees, including a Master's in Public Administration from the JFK School of Government at Harvard. By her own account, she's a perfectionist like Petraeus. And, as we all know, in the military, which defines Broadwell's life in a significant way, there's a right way to do things and a wrong way. I would imagine that she brings this code into her life in general - and perhaps that's one of the reasons she was drawn to the military in the first place.

Assuming this image has been on the driveway for awhile (and if it hasn't see what I said above, regarding the prevailing atmosphere), I wonder why the mistake hasn't been corrected. Quite simply, given her education level and drive for perfection, Broadwell should know better than to permit a mistake like this to appear in plain sight. The house doesn't seem to have a broken window or front door with graffiti - the kind of things that has led cops in some major cities to adopt a "broken window policy." The thinking is that doors that are jammed lead to bigger problems, such as murder. This policy has led to the clean-up of undesirable neighborhoods. The spelling error on Broadwell's driveway calls for a similar policy. Maybe we can call it a "broken spelling policy," for it's symptomatic of a larger condition, albeit playing out in a way that is more acceptable than what we see in poor neighborhoods.

Behind the emoticon in the driveway, behind something either not learned in all of the years of schooling or overlooked because a third-grader wrote it and the parents let it stand because who has the time?, we are looking at a case of serious social violence which has taken down two families, and perhaps more. The kind of extreme striving that has characterized Broadwell's life minus the knowledge of how to build the proper foundation (such as spelling things right, especially when you call yourself an author) will forever be felt by the true victims in this episode, the children.

Well, all right then! Next up we have Jill Kelley, the woman whom Broadwell allegedly emailed from an account that led to Petraeus, warning her to stay away from her man, or something along those lines. Kelley is something of an influential figure in Tampa, married to a prominent doctor and a volunteer social liaison at MacDill Air Force base, facilitating events between high-ranking members of the military stationed there and the civilian community. She also appears to have some sort of affiliation with a counter-terrorism unit. It was in one of these capacities that she met Petraeus, when MacDill was headquarters for CentCom during the war in Iraq.

At some point during this period, Kelley developed some sort of friendship with the then-general; in fact her family and his family have been shown in pictures circulating the ethers, and as of today, we have learned that he wrote a letter on her behalf regarding the fate of her twin sister's son in a custody battle with her twin's ex-husband. And here's where the shabbiness comes in again, the hyper-angling, the bigger better me me me that runs through this story. You see, the thing about the photos is that she strikes the same pose every time - and so does her twin sister! - head tilted in kind of a yearbook pose, nothing spontaneous or life-like about it, rendering both of them the Kardashians of CENTCOM.

Okay, you might be saying, we all like to put our best selves forward when it comes to being permanently digitized. And you would be right. But the head tilt is a tell, a thing that people do when they want to do the thing that "successful" people have done before them - in beauty pageants, in entertainment magazines, on television, on screens everywhere - in order to look like all of those other people. Striving, in other words, needing to look a certain way in order to live in a certain world - in this case, the power circuit of Tampa and through that the military-industrial-celebrity complex that seems to be running much of the world these days.

But it's not just the photos that suggest a desperation, it's some sort of unwillingness to apply a code, except when it gets you somewhere, or some sort of need to keep people handy, no matter what they do, because you never know when you might need them. We now know that the FBI agent whom Jill Kelley contacted to seek help when she received the emails from Paula Broadwell (though she apparently didn't know who was sending them at the time) had himself emailed Ms. Kelley photographs of himself - shirtless, before she received the offending notes from Ms. Broadwell. Now, it's not every day that any of us receives email from FBI agents without their shirts. Given that she's married and a well-known figure in Tampa, this is odd, unless he's an old boyfriend or partner in a one-night stand. Or maybe they're just friends who exchange provocative emails. Or, as things seem to be shaping up, his governor may be a bit off, as the old saying goes.

In any case, I wonder if she was bothered by those emails, or did she think nothing of them?, or was she flattered or maybe turned on? We do not know, but she didn't report them to the FBI (I'm guessing, or otherwise, he probably would have been fired then and the affair between Broadwell and Petraeus would never have made the news, let alone become a joke on Facebook). What we do know is that this is the man she went to with her gripe about strange emails - from someone else! And all of the emails that she's received in this episode have to do with sex: let's have it, don't you dare...strike the pose and see what happens...

And now, everyone has lawyered up. That's ok, it's their right, and we are nothing if not jacked on rights. When this scandal subsides, these lapses will fall by the way, be shrugged off, go unnoticed, continue. But in their wake, there has been a war, make that two, with thousands and thousands of lives lost on all sides and these people have been players in them, and so have we all, for better and for worse. While I do believe that America is facing an external threat - one that was made manifest on September 11th, 2001 - the shabbiness that derives from our compulsion to isolate the problem! getterdun! (as Broadwell wrote from the front) take off the rear-view mirrors! (code Petraeus) - is an internal threat that is not going anywhere soon, no matter how much anyone hearts anyone else.

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