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Bessent: David Petraeus' indiscretion shouldn't end his public service

Gen. David Petraeus poses with his biographer Paula

Gen. David Petraeus poses with his biographer Paula Broadwell in Afghanistan in this handout image provide by International Security Assistance Force NATO. (July 13, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

With the latest "affaire sexuelle" roiling Washington, there's a lesson to be learned from a startling scene in 1996 outside the church where former French president Francois Mitterrand was laid to rest.

As his widow, Danielle, and their two sons entered the church in Jarnac, France, behind them in the procession were Mitterrand's longtime mistress, Anne Pingeot, and their daughter, Mazarine Pingeot. The Pingeots had even been invited to the official residence in Paris before Mitterrand's body was flown to Jarnac.

That sort of sophisticated acceptance of the personal indiscretions of public officials may not be the American way, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But the willingness to separate the job performance of public officials from any unrelated messiness in their personal lives is worth emulating.

The affair that prompted CIA Director David Petraeus to resign last week is a tawdry reality show. He admitted carrying on an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, who sent anonymous, threatening email to a second woman, Jill Kelley, who alerted a friend in the FBI, which led to the investigation that uncovered Petraeus' affair with Broadwell and flirtatious email Kelley exchanged with Gen. John Allen, who succeeded Petraeus as the top American commander in Afghanistan in July 2011. Oh, and Kelley's FBI friend sent her topless photos of himself.


Allen has denied having an affair with Kelley, but his nomination to become the next commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO forces in Europe is on hold as the Pentagon investigates those emails.

Petraeus' job as CIA director obviously makes all this a delicate political matter. So a reckless affair and a lot of sophomoric notes passed between consenting adults has derailed the career of a celebrated military leader and spy chief, and threatens to take down a second four-star general as well.

FBI officials who investigated the anonymous email Kelley received, and in the process uncovered Broadwell's affair with Petraeus, concluded no laws were broken. Still to be answered definitively is whether Petraeus gave Broadwell inappropriate access to any classified documents or shared any national secrets during their pillow talk.

If Petraeus compromised national security in the conduct of the affair, his fall from grace will be, and should be, irrevocable. But if it turns out to be nothing more than a foolhardy sexual dalliance -- a betrayal of his wife, but not his country -- that's no reason to consign a brilliant, accomplished public servant to the scrap heap. If nothing more comes out after all the investigations are completed and all the facts are known, then he shouldn't be barred from holding public office in the future.

He is, after all, a West Point graduate with a doctorate in international relations who commanded U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan -- not to mention the architect of the troop surge that put the U.S. military on course for a dignified withdrawal from Iraq. He left the military in 2011 to head the CIA. That's a record of service that shouldn't be dismissed lightly.

Would it be better if high-ranking officials didn't act like schoolboys with a crush on the popular girl? Of course. It's mind-boggling that Petraeus risked so much so cavalierly. You'd think the CIA director would know not to expect salacious email to remain secret. His stunning lack of judgment is something to be weighed if he's ever considered for another public job. He'd have to convince the public this fiasco has left him wiser.

But there's something to be said for the French approach that doesn't demand leaders immune to ordinary human frailties.

Alvin Bessent is a member of the Newsday editorial board.