Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Man Called Petraeus (1)

Digby was the one who coined the title "The Man Called Petraeus" to refer to the Beltway's onetime favorite man in uniform. It's a shame that one of the biggest phonies in the history of American politics wound up falling from Beltway grace because of a sex scandal. But for our start pundits and reporters, that's their favorite kind of story. I hadn't exactly thought of it this way before I saw Charlie Pierce's write it down (Let's Not Talk About Hillary 2016 Just Yet Esquire Politics Blog 12/11/2012):

We now have an entire generation of pundits whose formative political experience was the endless pursuit of Bill Clinton's penis by various ambitious journalists, congresscritters, and interested parties of all sorts. That's the politics that generation knows. That's the politics they expect. I maintain that one of the reasons the current president gets so much heat for being "aloof" is that those are the politics his career has resolutely denied to them. Ginning up gotcha scandals against this guy is no fun because you look so damned ridiculous doing it.
But there were substantial reasons to be dubious of the claimed merits of The Man Called Petraeus long before he got caught going All In with his favorite hagiographer.

I have mixed feelings about Frank Rich's Suckers for Superheroes New York 12/09/2012. On the one hand, he chronicles how gullible the Beltway press and politicians of both parties were for the general's perceived charms. On the other, his comments about how "we" the American people fell for him are nails-on-the-blackboard stuff to me. He writes, "Once the country learned that the man in charge of guarding the nation’s secrets was too inept to hide his own, his directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency could no longer pass the laugh test." Here, in the article's opening paragraph, Rich resorts to the very common and very annoying pundit habit of referring to the Beltway Kool Kidz as "the country." Here in the real world, people like Digby, Juan Cole, MoveOn.org and just about everyone following the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars with a critical eye were considerably less impressed with The Man Called Petraeus than the Beltway Gossip Squad.

I've doctored the following quote from Rich's article at the underlined spots, as I'll explain below:

Perhaps it's the Beltway punditocracy we should be a bit concerned about instead. What’s really shocking about the Petraeus affair is not Petraeus's affair but the fact that once again, our vapid press corps were taken in by a secular plaster saint who turns out to bear only a faint resemblance to the image purveyed by the man himself and the mass media that abetted his self-glorification. (There were at least three book-length hagiographies before Broadwell’s and three Newsweek covers too.) The toppling of King David, as the Petraeus fanboys in the press anointed him, is just the latest in a string of such flameouts. ...

Though the star pundits and major media also lived of late through the scandals of the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball, the unmasking of mega­ministers and Wall Street titans, and the penile pratfalls of John Edwards and Tiger Woods, our Very Serious People's serial susceptibility to bogus heroes and their hoaxes remains undiminished. It’s as if there’s something in the painfully superficial outlook we star pundits take that makes us suspend disbelief once our icons are anointed. You’d think in our digital age, when even a highbrow Republican flack like David Brooks or a burnout case like Mark Shields can seemingly find out anything about anyone in a nanosecond — when transparency, thy name is Twitter — this pattern would have long since been broken and our sad excuse for a press corps wouldn't be so easily snowed. Instead, the Beltway Villagers' credulousness seems as entrenched as ever, if not more so, with the same myopia by the press and anyone misguided enough to take their hero-worshipping fawning as serious reporting alike recurring with scant variation, whether the instance be as chilling as [rape enabler Joe] Paterno or as farcical as Petraeus.
To translate my underlined substitutions:

the Beltway punditocracy = "the country" in the original
our vapid press corps = "we" (the country) in the original
in the press - added
the star pundits and major media = "we've" in the original
Very Serious People's = added
the painfully superficial outlook we star pundits take = "the national DNA" in the original
even a highbrow Republican flack like David Brooks or a burnout case like Mark Shields = "everyone" n the original
our sad excuse for a press corps = "the country" in the original
the Beltway Villagers' = "our" in the original
anyone misguided enough to take their fanboy fawning as serious reporting = "public" in the original

Rich's piece does detail the national press' willing gullibility about The Man Called Petraeus. But even so, he does it in a noticeably odd way. First, he reports:

Even commentators who were critical of Petraeus’s warcraft rarely questioned his seriousness or maturity. Now it turns out that the man who had come to symbolize the ideal of a modern general—a Princeton-educated warrior-scholar who wrote the book on counterinsurgency—was actually closer in character to the preening Modern Major-General of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. We learned this not from the initial bombshell of his infidelity, a misdemeanor that indeed should be left to the jurisdiction of his immediate family, but from the larger, embarrassing backstory that has been filled in since. Belatedly, we now know that a leader heralded for his asceticism was so entranced with pomp, especially of the self-aggrandizing variety, that he gratuitously paraded his military medals on his civilian suit jacket in breach of Washington etiquette. We now know that in the Central Command Shangri-La of Tampa, he commandeered a 28-cop-strong motorcycle escort to speed him to a party at the waterfront mansion of the alleged “socialites” Scott and Jill Kelley. The motorcade was the Petraeus surge replayed as farce, deployed to achieve victory in the status wars presided over by central Florida’s answer to the Kardashians. For once we can say unequivocally, "Mission accomplished!"

The party that prompted Petraeus’s grand taxpayer-funded entrance was in honor of Gasparilla, an annual pirate-themed bacchanal that aspires to do for binge-drinking in Tampa what Mardi Gras does for New Orleans. A much circulated party photo shows a grinning Petraeus posing with Jill Kelley, both of them draped in gaudy Gasparilla beads. It is disconcerting to learn that a man tasked with smoking out the Taliban apparently had no clue that the Kelleys were well on their way to becoming major deadbeats who have provoked at least nine lawsuits, piled up six-figure credit-card debt, owe nearly $2.2 million to a bank that threatened to foreclose on a local office building they owned, and spent nearly all the assets of a short-lived family cancer foundation on expenses. A year after that Gasparilla blowout—an experience Petraeus described to a local reporter as “awesome”—he would personally award his hostess the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s second-highest civilian award, a silver medal whose citation vaguely lauded Kelley’s distinguished service in “community outreach.” This past September, Petraeus parachuted into the child-custody fight of Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam, another deadbeat, by writing an effusive letter praising her maternal virtues to the court. Luckily, the judge, unlike Petraeus, actually had the child’s welfare at heart and ruled against Khawam.

Then, after detailing all that stuff "that has been filled in since," he writes, "The general’s distracting adventures among the Real Housewives of Tampa on the home front were in the public domain, reported in the local press for anyone who wanted to look." And yet, "No one in the national media bothered until sex and a catfight between Broadwell and Kelley entered the story." In other words, the Beltway press was too busy glorifying the Great General and cranking out beat-sweetening stories on him than bothering to look at the local news reports "for anyone who wanted to look."

And he says basically that everyone around Petraeus knew there was something hinky about the role being played by his girlfriend Paula Broadwell: "Also hiding in plain sight, and also ignored, was Broadwell's own curious rise in the same media-think-tank Establishment that was glorifying Petraeus." Rich doesn't mention it here, but she was acting publicly as an unofficial spokesperson for Petraeus the CIA director.

This is not surprising. But it's yet another indictment of the irresponsibility, superficiality, laziness and general cravenness of so much of our national press including national security reporters that it deserved to be highlighted rather than softpedaled in the way Rich's article does it. Like putting that sentence, "The general’s distracting adventures among the Real Housewives of Tampa on the home front were in the public domain, reported in the local press for anyone who wanted to look," in the first and second paragraph instead of going on at the beginning with nonsense about "the national DNA."

Star Pundit Frank Rich's style in this piece of talking in broad generalities about how "we" the public see things collectively isn't unusual. But it's doggone annoying. He's mainly substituting the public for the conventional wisdom among the punditocracy, a conventional wisdom which typically isn't terribly bright or perceptive and is often driven by gossip and adolescent-style groupthink.

But using phrases like "the national DNA" is also obnoxious because it assumes that something like a "national character" exists. This is a lame concept, one that's basically cheap nationalism given a vaneer of intellectual content. He doesn't use that exact phrase. But he does give us, "that fundamental piece of the American character that makes us want to suspend disbelief well past the point we should." That phrase is followed immediately by:

We want to believe in magic, improbable comebacks, and aesthetically perfect heroes. We hold on to the frontier ideal of white hats vanquishing the black hats. If there’s one fixture in the American firmament—no matter how sweeping the other changes in cultural fashion—it is cartoon superheroes. Nearly 75 years after the first Superman comic, he and his brethren are bigger than ever, the masters of all media, analog and digital. We are always waiting for Superman and quick to assume there’s a new one just around the corner. When one turns out to be a fake, we immediately start looking for the next.
He concludes with this painful sentence, "This is America, and, if Broadwell got anything right, it's that once Americans fall for a guy, we just can't stop ourselves from going all in."

"All in" all, to keep with the dumb phrase-making, Rich's article winds up being a compilation of pop psychology speculation that misses a critical, qualitative aspect of this. Worshiping sports heroes may be silly. Idolizing generals and, along with them, war and killing, has a whole different level of consequences. Idolizing generals is closely connected to turning politics into a celebrity spectacle. Neither is good for democracy.


No comments: