You Don’t Have to be a Star, Baby

His fall started as Sophocles and turned sophomoric, a mind-boggling mélange of “From Here to Eternity,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “The Real Housewives of Centcom,” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” It features toned arms, slinky outfits, a cat fight, titillating e-mails, a military more consumed with sex than violence, a plot with more inconceivable twists than “Homeland,” and a Twitter’s-delight lexicon: an “embedded” mistress named Broadwell, a biography called “All In,” an other-other woman of Middle East ancestry who was a “social liaison” to the military, a shirtless F.B.I. agent crushing on the losing-her-shirt-to-debt Tampa socialite, a pair of generals helping the socialite’s twin sister with a custody case, and lawyers and crisis-management experts linked to Monica Lewinsky, John Edwards and the ABC show “Scandal.”

“This is The National Enquirer, ” an alarmed Senator Dianne Feinstein told Wolf Blitzer of CNN. If only it were that highbrow.

Maureen Dowd gets it right in her column, but she also gets it wrong. General Allen’s sexts to Jill Kelley are almost certainly what they appear to be, but those two are just supernumeraries (or collateral damage, depending on your point of view)–their story wouldn’t merit more than a handful of headlines, never mind the overwrought comparisons to Greek tragedy and Shakespeare.

General Petraeus’s fatal flaw wasn’t lust so much as it was vanity and overweening ambition. If his scandal is devolving into a vulgar reality show a la the Kardashians, you have to remember that it began in the realm of scripted and packaged reality programming too, though of a sort that fell under the rubric of “news” or “politics” rather than “entertainment.” Michael Hastings puts it in context in his devastating Buzzfeed piece, The Sins of General David Petraeus“:

Petraeus’ first biographer, former U.S. News and World Report reporter Linda Robinson, wrote a book about him, then went to CENTCOM to work for him. Yes — a so-called journalist published a book about him, then started getting a paycheck from him soon after. This went largely unremarked upon.

Another huge supporter was Tom Ricks, a former Washington Post journalist who found a second career as unofficial press agent for the general and his friends. Ricks is the ringleader of what I like to call “the media-military industrial complex,” setting the standard for its incestuous everyday corruption. He not only built Dave up, he facilitated the disastrous liaison between Broadwell and Petraeus. Ricks helped get Broadwell a literary agent, a six-figure book deal, and a publisher.

Broadwell was sold to publishers as much for her looks as what she was writing — she was an attractive package to push Petraeus and his counterinsurgency ideas. Little, Brown editor Geoff Shandler once told me how “hot” he thought Broadwell was after she came in to meet him at his office, and indicated to me that Broadwell had made him somewhat aroused. Intellectual integrity all around, to be sure.

Broadwell’s unheralded collaborator Vernon Loeb did the mere writing; she did the real work of publicizing her mentor and herself.

Everybody knows how much sausage-making goes on with political candidates–and how disastrously wrong it can go when their handlers bungle the optics (putting Dukakis in a tank, for example, or staging a Top Gun aircraft carrier landing for George W. Bush; filming Paul Ryan in a soup kitchen, scrubbing clean pots and pans).

General MacArthur notwithstanding, few people realize how much deliberate image management goes into modern generaling. Google images of General Petraeus, though, and you see a man with a spectacularly high regard for himself–and a lust for public admiration that is well nigh insatiable. Amity Shlaes wrote a column about narcissism and adultery–John Edwards fell for a woman who was filming him; Jack Welch had an affair with and then married a business editor who now co-writes his books and columns (Broadwell had a puff piece about Petraeus and his Rules For Living in Newsweek just last week). How could the 60-year-old general resist the wiles of a woman who so clearly idolized him–and who showed him to the world in such a flattering light?

Compare and contrast Petraeus’ photograph above to this verbal portrait of Ulysses Grant, penned by one of Lincoln’s aides: “About two o’clock in the afternoon of the 9th of March, 1864, a messenger told me to look out of the window of my room and I would see General Grant. I went, and saw a plain, round-shouldered man in citizen’s dress, with a lad, his eldest son, by his side, walking away from the house, where he had been to pay his first visit to the President.” A Congressman described the heroic figure Grant cut at a White House reception: “The little, scared-looking man who stood on a crimson-covered sofa was the idol of the hour. He remained on view for a short time; then he was quietly smuggled out by friendly hands, and next day departed from the city, which he then appeared to dread so much, to begin the last and mightiest chapter in his military career.”

There’s Fame and there’s notoriety–and what’s so disturbing nowadays is that even our Great Heroes seem so assiduous to sell themselves for the debased currency of celebrity. The Truman Show was on TV last night and I watched it with my 15 year old son. 1998, when it was released, wasn’t such a long time ago, but it was a year before “Big Brother” and “Survivor” broke so big and made reality programming what it is today. When Truman discovered that his life was fodder for the voyeuristic pleasure of millions, he rebelled–and the world cheered him as he struggled to escape into the dignity of anonymity. Nowadays, people on reality shows are thrilled to be on display. They use them to become “real” celebrities–and in an even more bizarre twist, authentically famous people are increasingly taking their cues from their imitators (or their imitators’ imitators in Jill Kelley’s case–she and her twin sister might look and act like Kardashians, but until now, they weren’t actually on TV).

Back in 2007, Tom Engelhardt acidulously described Petraeus as “a vain media darling” and “the Paris Hilton of Generals.” I wonder if he knew that he was writing his epitaph.

One thought on “You Don’t Have to be a Star, Baby

  1. If Petraeus releases the sex tape he might well become President. It is the logical progression of modern made-for-media warfare.

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