Poor David Petraeus. He's become the joke that keeps on giving. Comedian-satirist Stephen Colbert mockingly attached these monikers to the salaciousness of the Petraeus saga: "General's Hospital" and the "Love Pentagon."
It's a cast with five key stars in the plot. Apparently the four stars on each of Petraeus' uniform epaulets represent each of his co-stars in this military soap opera. Nevertheless, the good general is perched right in the center of this reality show being played out on 24-hour cable, social media, tabloids, Google searches, news-feature magazines and Twitter right in front of our "i's" - the iPhones, iPads, etc.
It's shameful - and shocking - that the 60-year-old Petraeus is out of a job after his predecessor, the forgotten general, Stanley McChrystal, was forced out, essentially for insubordination toward the Obama White House. Call it General Despair.
For Petraeus, the digital media have been Dickensian - It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Petraeus was known to assiduously use email to communicate his message with a persistent media; and damning emails during his illicit affair were at the core of his downfall.
"It's really sad that we've had two senior and obviously brilliant officers blow up their own careers - Petraeus now, and Stanley McChrystal with his Rolling Stone interview," said Charles Maier, professor of history at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. "My sense is that McChrystal's breach would have been considered the more serious one in the 1940s."
Imagine if today's media outlets/devices were en vogue during D-Day - June 6, 1944. Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower may not have seen the first landing craft packed with Allied soldiers hit the Normandy beaches in France. Eisenhower, based in England at the time, was the architect of D-Day, which essentially marked the beginning of the end for Nazi madman Adolf Hitler and his vaunted Wehrmacht (or German "war machine").
Eisenhower was rumored to have had an affair with his personal driver, Kay Summersby, an auburn-haired beauty from Ireland who previously had been a model before she enlisted in the British Mechanized Transport Corps. Whereas "The Petraeus Party" consists of the general; his biographer Paula Broadwell; the other woman, Jill Kelley; the other general, John Allen; and the FBI agent Frederick Humphries II, Eisenhower's quintet was vastly different. The five-member "Eisenhower Ensemble" consisted of Gen. Ike; Summersby; his orderly, Sgt. Mickey McKeogh; a black valet, Sgt. John Moaney; and a Scottish terrier named Telek.
Now, how about a time-capsule moment? Take today's information technology, transfer it "Back to the Future" in full "Star Trek"-transporter fashion to 1944. What would happen? Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and the author of "Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons," says Eisenhower could have faced a major headache, similar to Petraeus' predicament today, even though Ike's relationship was ambiguous at best but was burdened by perception.
Said Troy: "Today's prudish, invasive, 'Gotcha' press would have made the Ike-Kay relationship the defining fact about Ike rather than minor, insignificant acts, like his brilliant D-Day plan or his general stewardship of this extraordinarily powerful army assembled to defeat the Nazis."
OK, Troy is being a bit facetious about the "minor, insignificant acts," but you get his point how a major moment with astronomical stakes suddenly could take a back seat to the sensational in today's media frenzy. Eisenhower, a transformational figure in his era, enjoyed the benefits of hagiography during a non-invasive media age. If Eisenhower were forced to resign, it could have dramatically altered the course of the war in Europe - and civilization as we know it in the process.
Petraeus resigned as CIA director before the media frenzy could sink its teeth into debating his next step. His decision was affected - really hammered home - by email technology; with Eisenhower, we have seen his written letters to his wife, Mamie, during World War II. In them, Eisenhower admitted his loneliness but incessantly tried to reaffirm his love for Mamie while sometimes making what appeared to be veiled references to Kay. Yet, Kay or no Kay, Ike wrote Mamie approximately twice a week - that's 319 letters within a three-year span.
But how is a wife to feel when she constantly sees a lovely woman with her husband in the many photos transmitted back to the U.S. media in the 1940s. "Eisenhower - whatever the realities of their physical relationship - was certainly not shy about having Kay Summersby act as his companion," said Dr. David Silbey, associate director of the Cornell University in Washington program and a lecturer in courses in modern military history and European history. "She hosted parties for him, attended conferences with him and went to high-ranking meetings - lunching with (British Prime Minister Winston) Churchill, among others - with him. Mamie Eisenhower was jealous of her from quite a long ways away."
While Petraeus' relationship with Broadwell apparently was physical, Eisenhower's situation with Summersby appears a bit murkier. First, several biographies and historical annals have claimed that Eisenhower was sexually impotent. Second, Eisenhower may have fostered more of a "psychological affair" than physical one with Summersby.
However, there were reports that Eisenhower secretly desired to divorce Mamie and eventually marry a starry-eyed Kay after the war. If that's true, was his intention real, or was it a fleeting moment of lust (could that also apply to Petraeus and Paula?) for a cover-girl woman with the wares to potentially appear in a Cosmopolitan or Playboy magazine?
Either way, Eisenhower and Mamie remained married through two presidential terms and death.
What does all of this suggest?
Said Troy, "I believe that the relationship between Ike and Kay was deep, intimate, and was a form of psychological adultery, but not the tawdry physical adultery at the heart of the Petraeus scandal. I think it was not physical because Ike was a man of honor. I point to various pieces of evidence, including Kay's initial insistence - and frustration - that it was so. But to me, the most telling piece of evidence is the fact that Ike took both Mamie and Kay to a performance of "Oklahoma" on a New York trip. I don't think he was such a boor that he would have done that had he crossed the line in standard adultery."
In fact, Troy evoked a vivid image from the popular "Mary Tyler Moore" television show to illustrate the Ike-Kay relationship. Remember the characters Lou Grant (the boss) and Mary Richards (the employee). Said Troy: "Lou and Mary had a relationship wherein Mary was Lou's office 'wife' - they were close, intimate, friends - and there was some sexual tension, which led to one famous near-kiss in an episode, but nothing else ..."
And there's the view from Ike's orderly, Sgt. McKeogh, who, during a PBS documentary on Eisenhower that aired in the 1990s, said: "If you are having an affair, you can't hide it that much, and I put him to bed every night, and I woke him every morning. He was in bed by himself and he was in bed still by himself when he got up in the morning."
Added Silbey: "Summersby occupied much the same place for Eisenhower in Europe that his wife did at home. She was his companion, support, hostess and so on. She was, in a sense, his 'wife' during the war. Physically? That's much less clear. Summersby mentioned nothing at all about it in her first memoir and then detailed, in her second memoir, a somewhat fumbling physical relationship that consisted of only a few sexual encounters. That's really the extent of the credible evidence for the physical side of the affair."
Would Ike have resigned if his supposed affair had developed into a possible scandal, a la Petraeus? "I could see him getting humiliated or being forced to resign due to the 'non-affair,' despite his obvious skills," Troy said, "... and the country would have been deprived of an extraordinary hero and leader."
Added Maier of Harvard: "But the bottom line - this stuff is Shakespearean and not just an artifact of modern technology."
That's an all too familiar scenario.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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