Let only those who are without sin hold public office?

23:00, Nov 16 2012

The United States is the home of hyperbole and the land of super-sizing.

So in those respects it should be no surprise that General David Petraeus' extramarital affair should be so huge.

But there does seem even more than the usual frenzy about the CIA director's career-ending liaison with Paula Broadwell.

It has overshadowed President Barack Obama's re-election last week, filling screens and papers with salacious details of the scandal of the general, his biographer lover and the emails she apparently sent to warn off a perceived love rival.

The other woman, a Florida socialite, complained to the FBI, setting off a chain of investigation that uncovered the general's extramarital liaison and led to his resignation last week. Another general has also been ensnared in the case for sending "suggestive" emails to the socialite.

It sounds like a mini-series script, which is perhaps why it has played so well, but it raises more serious questions.


Among them: To what moral standard should we hold our leaders accountable? And who decides that? The loudest? The purest?

What moral offences should lead to a very public downfall?

Once you start down that path, would there be anyone able to hold public office?

True, General Petraeus' position as the head of one of the world's biggest intelligence agencies may have made it too difficult to continue.

The open season on his personal life has been carried out under the banner of public interest because of the potential security risk.

Reports this week have said Mrs Broadwell's computer held low-level "classified information", though the general has denied supplying any to her and President Obama has said he is unaware of anything discovered so far that would harm national security.

If that turns out to be the case, then you are left with a 60-year-old married man falling for his 40-year-old biographer, who is also married.

It's no doubt personally devastating for the families involved, but the public punishment seems to far outweigh the crime, in America at least.

In New Zealand there have been instances of prime ministers, cabinet ministers and others in public life having affairs. Occasionally there might be a public disclosure, such as David Lange's affair with his speech writer, Margaret Pope.

But the attention was short-lived, and Mr Lange is remembered more for his wit and political oratory than his personal life.

Contrast that with US president Bill Clinton, whose relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky became a defining part of his career, despite the work he did before and has done since.

General Petraeus, widely credited for his efforts in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan and tipped by some to become a future president, seems set for the same hall of infamy.

Some commentators say he is guilty of stupidity as much as infidelity - that a man who deals in deep secrets should know not to leave an email trail.

But they are superficial judgments and set a high bar: If you are in public office don't make mistakes in your personal life. If you do, don't get caught.

Ideally, we wouldn't make these errors in the first place, and General Petraeus will have a lot of spare time to reflect on that. But short of being ruled by machines, they will happen.

The Nelson Mail