If Shakespeare were still with us, he would have found his Othello. Gen. David H. Petraeus is not the darkly handsome Moor of the Bard's tale, but a highly decorated officer of pallor, a nerdy-looking guy with a comb-over, but like the Moor he fuses monumental courage with human frailty. Public stature often stands on clay feet. It's the rest of us who put the marble sculpture of celebrity on its pedestal.
In spite of all the splendid attributes of competence, dignity and self-respect that accompanied the honorable and valiant Othello in his military career, he was merely mortal, an easy victim of the "green-eyed monster." Mr. Petraeus, like Othello a famous soldier with an inventory of war stories to impress a younger woman, is a soldier and a man who must find the exquisite balance of honor and vulnerability. The modern four-star general, like other men who discover that power is a very effective aphrodisiac, was disarmed by a woman who draws attention to her well-toned body, giving new meaning to a woman who bears arms. We can call this saga "Of Arms and the Man."
We think our oh-so-open-minded post-modern attitudes have triumphed over ancient rules written to govern behavior, but Cupid's arrow can strike an Achilles' heel as swiftly as it ever felled a hero of the Trojan War. The medium doesn't change the message, it only delivers it faster and to a wider audience. Homer memorized his epics and repeated them to crowds in an amphitheater. Shakespeare labored with quill and parchment for his actors at the Globe. Their audiences nevertheless shared similar sentiments of pity, fear and schadenfreude.
Paula Broadwell, (even her name sounds like something out of Restoration comedy) is no wifely Desdemona who loves virtuously, but this is the 21st century after all, not the 16th. Instead of losing a handkerchief, the general's mistress lost control of her emotions. As the "other woman," she gave in to a jealous rage when she thought another "other woman" was poaching on her guy.
The soap-opera scenario has become as complicated as any play by Shakespeare, and with as many characters, lacking only the Bard's eloquence to weave the tangled web of deceit and deception. That's too bad, because Mr. Petraeus could certainly repeat with feeling Othello's full-throated farewell to "plumed troop, and the big wars/ That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell."
But as Shakespeare would understand, tragedy sometimes requires comic relief. Other players in this scandal have added that. Instead of a clumsy and villainous Iago to push the plot along, the FBI appears on the scene, and in pursuit of villainy, the agents look less like Sherlock Holmes than Inspector Clouseau. The agent assigned to investigate harassing emails from the mistress to a suspected rival becomes so obsessed with the case that he sent the complaining witness photographs of his topless physique -- the bumbling Clouseau never bumbled so recklessly.
Tragedy becomes farce. Gen. John R. Allen, the tough Marine who commands U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, falls under suspicion, fairly or not, when the FBI uncovers 20,000 to 30,000 pages of documents he forwarded to Jill Kelley, the other "other woman." These are described as "inappropriate," the Washington euphemism for anything from bad manners to explicit sex.
What is not clear, though many have their suspicions, is why the investigation was revealed so conveniently after the election, even though the FBI had lingered over it for months. The investigation is now holding up Gen. Allen's nomination as commander of the U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
When you can't follow the money, the usual key to following Washington investigations, you can usually follow the sex. Who knew these officers had so much time on their hands for these skirmishes in the endless war between the sexes?
We're all titillated by an entertaining soap opera, but the Petraeus affair holds deadly serious peril for the Obama administration and, more importantly, the country. The Washington Post says the president is "unscathed" by the scandal. Move along, there's nothing to see here. But we still don't know what happened in Benghazi, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, pleading for help, were murdered by terrorists. We don't know why Mr. Petraeus at first backed up the White House version of events, and why Team Obama went to such lengths to sell the silly story that it was all about Muslim anger over a video that almost nobody had seen.
One of Shakespeare's characters asks Othello how he will be remembered. "I have done the state a service," he says, but concedes that he had "loved not wisely but too well." David Petraeus has also done the state noble service, and like Othello loved unwisely, but his story is not over yet.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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