Like Woody Allen said, “Thank God for the French.”
After all these years, they still do sex scandals so much better than we do.
Imagine, if you will, that Bill and Hillary Clinton decided to run for president in the same year and that Hillary prevailed, resulting in Bill running away with Monica and then being elected in his own right later on, and you have a rough idea of what the political leadership in France has been up to.
From 2007 to 2012, you will recall, the president of France was Nicolas Sarkozy, a hard-line right-winger known as much for his romantic escapades as for his politics.
Sarkozy’s successor is a Socialist named François Hollande, whose former girlfriend and mother of their four children, Ségolène Royal, was Sarkozy’s main opponent in 2007. Hollande and Royal, who agreed Royal would be their party’s standard-bearer five years ago, have since parted ways as Hollande has taken up with his longtime mistress, Valerie Trierweiler, a journalist who has attempted to undercut Royal’s career at every turn.
Hollande was elected this year on the promise that his personal life would be boring and uneventful.
In a Vanity Fair feature that chronicles all of this hilarity, Evgenia Peretz notes that, contrary to perceptions here in the States, the French public can grow as weary of its government officials’ sexcapades as we do of ours, particularly when they prove an unhelpful distraction from serious domestic business. (The French economy is in worse shape than our own.)
The Hollande affair, such as it is, could be instructive for us as we cope with—finally!—the first sex scandal of the Obama administration, involving none other than the now-former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General David Petraeus.
Petraeus, even more than Hollande, came off as just about the least-likely person to embroil himself in such hanky-panky. The honor code inherent in the military culture he inhabited would seemingly rule out acting on adulterous impulses. Petraeus struck most who know him—and virtually all who don’t—as a consummate professional. And, failing all else, for Pete’s sake, he was director of the CIA!
It seems to me that, if we are to extract any lesson or meaning out of this mess on the sexual front, it might be in recognizing that we should probably give up judging our leaders on the basis of their personal lives.
In doing so, we invite a paradox. I maintain the view that there is nothing more important in assessing a public official than character, and how one behaves in a marriage is as integral to this equation as anything else.
And yet are we really prepared to say that, had we known this would happen, we would deprive ourselves of Petraeus’ expertise and wisdom on the battlefield?
In a way, Petraeus’ case is unique, and a relatively easy trapdoor out of this moral dilemma. As we have learned, to carry on an affair while leading an agency that operates at the highest possible levels of sensitivity is the epitome of irresponsibility. It really is an instance of one’s personal life impinging upon one’s public performance.
Most of the time, however, the sex has very little to do with the politics, and should be taken as a mere component of the whole package—a reflection that even our most distinguished leaders are susceptible to the same worldly temptations as the rest of us.
Americans have always tried to have it both ways. We want leaders who are like us, but also better and more virtuous. As it turns out, Petraeus filled both roles better than most. He was a soldier who exhibited extraordinary self-discipline; yet, simultaneously, in the words of David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “It turned out he was a human being.”
Many scribblers are framing the whole episode as an epic Greek tragedy, with the general’s testosterone-driven recklessness as the fatal flaw.
We should be careful not to overstate the case. Petraeus is a man, first and foremost, who lived his life—for better and worse—in all three dimensions.
To again quote Woody Allen, “The heart wants what it wants.” As much as we might wish officials such as Petraeus would rise above matters of the heart, we just might need to accept that such a proposition is easier said than done.
Just like the French.