David Petraeus' swift fall

David Petraeus' swift fall

November 13th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Gen. David Petraeus salutes during a changing of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan. Petraeus resigned as head of the CIA after admitting to an extramarital affair.

Gen. David Petraeus salutes during a changing of...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Given history, it hardly can be a surprise that another notable American in public service has been forced from office or had his reputation sullied as the result of an extramarital affair. What is startling to most Americans, though, is that the latest figure whose life and career has been marred by such a scandal is David Petraeus, until last week the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and before that a four-star Army general whose leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan made him one of the nation's most well-known and admired individuals.

Petraeus resigned Friday as the head of the CIA, admitting that he had engaged in a n extramarital affair, apparently with Paula Broadwell, his biographer. The decision to resign is appropriate. Petraeus occupied positions of extraordinary trust and had access to the United States' most closely guarded military and intelligence secrets. Though there has been no suggestion that national security was breached by the affair, Petraeus' resignation is appropriate. Given the potential security breach and the former general's oft-stated personal code of honorable conduct, there was no other choice.

Unfortunately, the fall from power by such a high-profile figure is not rare. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer are recent examples. Former Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Clinton are earlier examples. Their positions, too, made it impossible for them to avoid scandal, either immediately or in the judgment of history. Public office, unlike work in private enterprise, makes it likely that a heavy penalty for infidelity is exacted.

Petraeus understood that, publicly admitting Friday that "such behavior [the extramarital affair] is unacceptable, both as a husband and the leader of an organization such as ours [the CIA].". The resignation, however, will not end the intrigue and queries surrounding Petraeus.

Some questions are personal. Even his closest aides from his Army days seem stunned that Petraeus would risk his reputation and honor with an affair, which apparently started after he left the military. The act, they almost unanimously agree, is totally out of keeping with the disciplined life he led for decades.

There are other, more public questions that still must be answered following Petraeus' affair and resignation. The most pressing is why Congress -- especially its intelligence committees -- were not notified about the possibility of an incident that could have security repercussions. That's a legitimate concern, one that should be examined fairly in light of long -standing policy that information about on-going FBI criminal investigations is not shared with anyone outside the agency -- including Congress and the White House.

Following his resignation, members of both political parties praised Petraeus' service. They said little, of course, about the conduct that ended that service. His fall, though, is a reminder that public servants are held to a high standard, and that violation of it often results in a swift fall from grace.