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David Petraeus scandal has staying power — for now

Updated: December 15, 2012 6:21AM

Being a good general and fooling around are not mutually exclusive activities — Dwight Eisenhower was winning the war in Europe while stealing kisses from his driver, Kay Summersby, and he’s still revered as a military man and a great American.

Perhaps that has much to do with the fact that the discreet affair was left for historians to uncover and didn’t explode into the press of the day, which didn’t do that kind of thing then.

We sure do that kind of thing now, as retired general and up-to-Friday CIA director David Petraeus found out, when his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, forced his resignation and has been flaring into headlines, Twitter feeds and Facebook memes ever since.

A good scandal sends out concentric circles — it has legs — and this one has already implicated a secondary ring of participants: Gen. John Allen, the American commander in Afghanistan, is being probed for alleged “inappropriate communications” with Jill Kelley, the volunteer Air Force social liaison who inadvertently exposed the affair when she complained to the FBI of harassing emails that Broadwell allegedly sent to her.

With Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordering up a Pentagon investigation of Allen, expect more mud to spatter more names.

With the twin supernovae — perhaps — of these two scandals exploding, the public will be rapt stargazers because everybody will be able to see what they most want to see.

For romance novel fans, what first seemed a love triangle — Petraeus, his wife, Holly, and Broadwell — morphed into a polygonic house of mirrors whose dimensions we’ll be wandering for a long time.

For Republicans smarting after their defeat at the polls, here is Scandal No. 1 of Barack Obama’s second term — scandals by underlings being a common hazard of re-elected presidents. It feeds into their cherished narrative of intelligence malfeasance — add to dithering while the embassy fell in Bengazi an Inspector Clousseau-like C.I.A. head who, with the world’s most advanced encryption resources at his fingertips, conducts his romance via a gmail account under the fig leaf of a fake name that his colleagues at the FBI saw through like plate glass.

Republicans will demand to know why this didn’t come out before the election, when it could have caused most damage to the president. There will be a tale there, too — it’s not the fall that hurts you, to quote Garrison Keillor, but the twists you make trying not to fall. And considering what opponents could make of imagined situations, just think what they will do with something based in fact.

This is different than the standard affair narrative; for one, because Petraeus had the decency to resign. He isn’t trying to withstand a daily spattering of new allegations while clinging to his job. No need for his wife of 38 years to assume that strained, stand-by-your-man expression beside the podium.

Plus, the utility of beating up a secondary political figure who’s already quit will lose interest, even to revenge-hungry Republicans and the ever-voracious media. But not yet.

For a time — maybe a week, maybe a year — it will reverberate. What secrets were revealed? What lessons to be learned? We have our ethics for a reason. Adultery isn’t just bad because God says so, but — as Petraeus discovered — it weds your fortunes to someone else, whose bad judgment might scuttle your career in a blaze of embarrassment.

Petraeus, 60, is probably toast at this point. Though recovery is possible — just look at the most notorious philanderer of the past 25 years, Bill Clinton, who survived scandal to become a beloved elder statesman, and played a big role in Obama’s victory. The constant jokes about Monica Lewinksy — tawdry to begin with — got old, and even his enemies seemed to tire of bringing them up. Nothing stuck to him, and everybody just moved on.

The upside is that is good to be reminded that our romantic view of intelligence services relies too much on the movies and too little on reality. The shock wave from that explosion erupting behind James Bond would not cause him to leer and straighten his bow tie; in real life it would kill him. The CIA has produced some of the biggest bungles in the history of spycraft, completely missing enormous shifts in world politics, and the biggest shame of the Petraeus saga is that it really isn’t that big of a scandal — at least nobody was selling secrets to Russians.

Nobody we’ve caught yet, that is. There’s always tomorrow with a story like this, so pull up a chair and await the next lurid chapter. Oh, and while you’re at it, try to live right and, if you can’t, try not to document your misbehavior online. Because once you push “SEND” it’s gone into the bottomless maw of the Internet, where it will reside forever, and you never know who might go looking for it someday.

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