Unless General Petraeus packs a particularly formidable pistol in his pocket, it is unlikely that Paula Broadwell was shocked when the two consummated their affair. But clearly she was awed. Like a schoolgirl in a swoon, she longed to tell. She became her love object’s biographer and called the book All In. At every opportunity she advertised her “unprecedented access,” her position “by his side,” their jogs, their playful jousts, his “mentorship,” her ability to keep up, in the Hindu Kush, “embedded,” the buttons on her fitted blouse straining to contain her bosom, the sandbags of ambition and ideology inhibiting any realistic assessment of the general or the wars he directed. As Jon Stewart quipped about her book, “The real controversy here is, Is he awesome or incredibly awesome?” And, by association, Is she awesome or incredibly awesome?—a question she aimed to answer by doing sixty push-ups in formal wear.
Now that it’s come undone, the affair emblemizes the wartime culture that made, and unmade, them both: the hubris, the indifference to reality, the social rot and inevitable failure. In retrospect, it all seems so obvious. Of course they had an affair… like, of course Colin Powell lied about Saddam’s WMDs; of course bombing creates enemies; of course people hate their occupiers; of course the earth is scorched, children die, soldiers are broken, the war is lost. In farce as in tragedy, the end is in the beginning, but who was there who might have refused to suspend disbelief?
Not the general’s subordinates, who did think Broadwell’s propinquity a little odd. Not Broadwell’s writing partner, The Washington Post’s Vernon Loeb, so narcotized churning her dispatches into chapters he sensed nothing. Not the journalists whose familiarity with embedding inoculated the word from innuendo and whose obsession with access makes the “in” a mark not of the sycophant but of the star. Not the elite media claque whom Petraeus “mesmerized” (David Ignatius) or “made…feel special” (Erin Burnett) or won with his “Boy Scout’s charm” (Alissa Rubin and Dexter Filkins). Not the legions of fawners who proclaimed he has “the heart of a lion” (Gen. Barry McCaffrey), the mien of “a brainy ascetic” (The New York Times) and a gift so great that “almost everything he touches seems to turn to gold” (ABC).
All were so busy sucking up in the proverbial sense that none imagined that a star general might want the real thing, and could have it, from a homecoming queen and West Point grad as hungry to get ahead as he, and even more risk-centric. “I like to jump out of airplanes, ski in avalanche territory, and have even interviewed ‘terrorists,’ ” Broadwell puffed to the girlfriend networking maven and blogger Claudia Chan this summer, round about the time she was sending hissy e-mails to MacDill AFB’s “volunteer social liaison,” Jill Kelley. It is hard to resist the daytime drama, with loud twins, the weird, shirtless FBI agent friend and another general, tripped up on his way to becoming Supreme Allied Commander of NATO by 20,000 pages of flirty e-mails to Kelley.
“I look at the world as a series of webs to be connected,” Broadwell had told Chan. “The more one can play the connector…the more valuable you make yourself to each of the networks that want to be connected.” She described herself as “pathologically helpful,” patching together a worldview owing in part to Malcolm Gladwell, in part to Oprah and in large part to David Petraeus. It could not but lend itself to B-grade showbiz.