Petraeus case: When should sex cost public officials their jobs?

CIA chief David H. Petraeus resigned Friday.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

As it happens, on Thursday a friend and I were debating Bill Clinton’s extramarital sex scandals. Her argument ran along the lines that he deserved (though he didn’t get) a severe setback to his political ambitions because of his sexual indiscretion with Gennifer Flowers. My viewpoint was more that a public official’s private life wasn’t of much interest to me unless the sexual behavior was somehow related to malfeasance in the job. Monica Lewinsky was another matter; she was an intern, and an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate was very much the public’s business. Especially when the subordinate was a young intern who was easily taken advantage of, no matter how interested she was in the whole idea.

That discussion about ages-old events ended up being quite a coincidence when the news broke Friday about CIA Director David H. Petraeus resigning over an extramarital affair, reportedly with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The Times’ editorial board began discussing this via group email. Should Petraeus feel pressure to resign over a private affair? Was this more a matter of his personal religious convictions combined with his own sense of the point at which the leader of such an agency no longer could be viewed with the necessary respect by the people he supervises?

Overall, the consensus seemed to be that if this were simply a private matter that did not place him in a conflict of interest or undermine his work, it should not be enough for the man to lose his job.

SLIDESHOW: Political sex scandals


But since then, NBC News reported that Broadwell had been under FBI investigation for possibly attempting to break into Petraeus’ emails and possibly getting access to classified information. If that’s true, it suddenly all makes sense.

It still leaves unclear the answer to whether there’s a bright line for when public shaming of a public official should lead to the loss of his or her job. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) sexting scandal might not have amounted to a misuse of office, but it certainly spoke volumes about an elected official whose utter lack of discretion made his suitability for office suspect. The need for him to leave his post became more obvious when he lied about the whole thing and attempted to blame it on conservatives who he suggested might have hacked his account and sent the damning texts to discredit him.

And what about former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who fathered a child with the woman who was a photographer for his unsuccessful presidential bid? For one thing, there was the conflict of fraternizing with someone who worked for him. He also tried to deny the relationship at first, and then tried to deny he was the father, so that speaks to dishonesty.

But really, for all my arguments about public officials’ private lives, this one was mostly a matter of how much of a cheating character we could stomach. Edwards’ wife had terminal cancer at the time of the affair, and who would ever want to vote for a man who could cause such hurt to a woman in such a fragile state?



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