Personal tragedies are painful, and a personal tragedy played out on the public stage must be excruciating. Not to mention sad and uncomfortable to watch.
The ever-evolving Petraeus story is a classic example. Aside from whatever political, intelligence, or security fallout may eventually be revealed, the personal impact is horrendous, especially considering the number of innocent bystanders affected. My count is somewhere north of a dozen right now.
Nothing I'm saying is intended as an attack. I'm not qualified to cast the first stone. On the other hand, neither are my words intended as approval of extramarital affairs or as excusing offenders in high places simply because they're important people. Especially where military people are concerned, I have always believed that the higher the rank of the transgressor, the heavier should be the punishment. A guilty colonel, in my opinion, should be punished more severely than a private guilty of the same offense. Doesn't always work that way, but it should.
A lot of people evidently didn't feel they shared my lack of qualification for casting the first stone. It must have taken no more than three minutes from the announcement of General Petraeus' resignation for online commenters to begin their attacks. At least one magazine published, in its online version, snarling reader attacks so savage that I had to double-check to make sure it was actually a nationally known publication and not just a scandal sheet.
In the midst of contemplating the extremely high cost of his mistake, General Petraeus can at least console himself that he's not unique. Examples abound. George Washington was said to harbor warmer than average feelings for his neighbor's wife. Thomas Jefferson apparently had even warmer ones for his slave. Had computers and email been available at the time, the whole course of our history would likely have been altered dramatically.
In later years, FDR and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd carried on an extramarital affair for decades, ending only with his death. In those pre-electronic and less intrusive days, he was able to stop his presidential train in South Carolina and visit her, with the country none the wiser. General Eisenhower allegedly had an affair, of much shorter duration, with his English driver/aide during World War II. There was no email around to destroy his reputation, although he did accidentally use the driver's name once when addressing his wife, which destroyed not his reputation but some of the marital warmth he'd hoped for when coming home on leave.
General Patton was alleged to have carried on a closer than normal relationship with his wife's niece during the latter days of the war. Whether this might eventually have tarnished his reputation, on top of his other, more famous, indiscretions will never be known, as death intervened.
I have deliberately left Bill Clinton out of the list of philanderers the ex-CIA director might consider. Any man accused of the multiple infractions that he was, who can withstand impeachment, resurrect himself and become apparently admired by both major political parties, is so far outside the norm that he would distort comparisons.
"Power," Henry Kissinger famously proclaimed, "is the ultimate aphrodisiac." He had a point. Some women are attracted to powerful men, no matter how otherwise unattractive. At the same time, even the most powerful man is likely to respond positively to the adoring look and admiring compliments of an attractive woman. Some are strong and some are not. Which is not to say that men cheat only because a woman seduces them. Some men are predators, and being in a position of power just makes it easier to pursue other women outside the bounds of marriage.
If I were tasked to counsel men in public positions of power who might be contemplating having an affair, I would offer them just two pieces of advice: 1. Don't do it. 2. But if you insist, then be sure the paramour you select doesn't know how to use a computer.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."