Eileen McNamara: If Paula Broadwell is a punch line, the tawdry joke is of her own making. Women should be as furious at her careless folly as they are at Petraeus’ preening arrogance. Photos: Left, U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday July 4, 2011. (AP Photo/ U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP) Right, Paula Broadwell visible through the window of her brother's house in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. (Cliff Owen/AP)
This is what 40 years of progress for women has wrought?
A stellar graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who prefers to flex her shapely biceps, not her intellectual muscle, on a national book tour?
A Harvard Kennedy School graduate who uses her public policy education to produce a fawning hagiography, not a critical analysis, of the career of the narcissistic four-star general at the helm of America’s tragic misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan?
A wife and mother in an all-too-rare egalitarian marriage who goes weak in the knees, to say nothing of soft in the head, for her aging mentor, a darling of the Federal City’s media and social elite?
Is Paula Broadwell what gender equality is supposed to look like in 2012? Kim Kardashian with an advanced degree?
Predictably, the news coverage of the unfolding scandal surrounding the affair between 60-year-old CIA director David H. Petraeus and his 40-year-old biographer is focused on the Great Man.
How could a person of his apparently universally-acknowledged genius have risked so much for so fleeting a reward? How will the nation’s intelligence community survive without his purportedly peerless leadership?
Broadwell, on the other hand, is cast as an ancillary character straight out of Greek mythology, the wily temptress who ensnared the hapless warrior with her buff body and six-minute miles.
She “flitted across war zones in his shadow,” writes The New Yorker. She took “full advantage of her special access” and the honorable soldier — distracted by the burdens of war — “let his guard down,” concludes The Washington Post.
Who edits this stuff?
But, frankly, if Broadwell is a punch line, the tawdry joke is of her own making. Women should be as furious at her careless folly as they are at Petraeus’ preening arrogance.
She is not Monica Lewinsky or Mimi Alford, college-aged White House interns, exploited and discarded by two self-indulgent presidents for their own sexual pleasure. While hardly Petraeus’ equal, Broadwell is an adult, certainly more professional colleague than vulnerable subordinate.
Didn’t she notice that in this culture is always the woman who pays the price in these situations? While the commentators are still obsessing about her well-toned arms, they are already looking out for Petraeus’ future, suggesting he would be the perfect candidate for the presidency of Princeton. Surely, she knows Vassar will not be calling.
She excelled at West Point. She shined at Harvard. Every opportunity she squandered came on the backs of previous generations of women who fought for her chance to compete at the highest level, to serve in the company of her male peers and, in doing so, explode the lingering presumption that military men and women can not work alongside one another professionally.
The 119 women in the first class of female cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point deserved better from Broadwell, especially the 62 who endured a steady diet of abuse and resentment those long four years to graduate with their second lieutenant bars in 1980, and the 225 who graduated last year, only 17 percent of the class but the largest proportion of women in history.
The more than 225,000 women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, many as attachments to infantry foot patrols on the front lines deserved better, especially the more than 140 women who have died there at a time when the military is still weighing the right of women to serve in direct combat roles, a crucial, too-long-denied step toward career advancement.
Instead, this self-promoting soldier will be remembered for her harassing emails to a perceived romantic competitor that reportedly sparked this ever-widening scandal, a melodrama that has all the echoes — but for the adult diapers — of the lovesick astronaut who drove from Houston to Orlando to confront her own sexual rival in an airport parking lot.
The Navy drummed out the astronaut. The Army is unlikely to be more sympathetic to the reservist. Neither should we.
- LISTEN: Eileen McNamara discusses this piece on Radio Boston
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