The American people were mis-sold the General Petraeus scandal

It wasn't about security. It was about sex.

When the CIA director and former chief of American operations in Afghanistan resigned after admitting an affair with his hagiographer, a serious disconnect could be seen in the US coverage between the reasons the media wanted us to believe they found this scandal fascinating – security issues, personal privacy issues, unprecedented access issues, the hint of espionage and the smell of treason – and the reasons the media actually found this scandal fascinating: Broadwell's looks, the age difference between the two, the narrative of a powerful man brought low by his libido, and the stoicism of the betrayed spouses.

At the height of the story the internet rang with national security implications and thrilling spy narratives, hacked emails and clandestine communications. “If girlfriend was trying to access Petraeus email & FBI investigating, there's possibility she could be charged w espionage. Honey trap?”, the Telegraph's former Washington bureau chief, Toby Harnden, tweeted after the story broke. But now that the dust has settled, America has to come to terms with a difficult fact: this wasn't about security. It was about sex.

Headlines promising lines of enquiry like CNN's “is Petraeus' pillow-talk a security threat?” have so far borne scant fruit because everyone already knows the answer, which is: yes, but really no greater than background levels. A public servant is either professionally trustworthy or not, and an affair rarely changes this – the possibility of blackmail notwithstanding. The greatest American security breaches in recent history have been ideological leaks, not honey-traps. Broadwell was writing a book about Petraeus, not serially seducing generals for the KGB.

Maybe we can fall back on the old question: if someone can't handle themselves honestly in private life, how can they be expected to comport themselves straightforwardly in public life? But public servants often have chequered sex lives, and there isn't a convincing correlation between sleeping around and inability to work. In the private sector few are fired just for having an affair, but politicians and people like Petraeus are held to different moral standards.

America hasn't always been this prudish. Kennedy had a famously adventurous sex life, and FDR maintained a number of mistresses. But now the onus is much more on the media to sell: this is the era of News as Entertainment.

The age of sex scandal in the US seemingly started with Gary Hart, a Colorado Senator running for President in 1988 who made the mistake of laying a challenge for the press. “Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me – go ahead.” The papers took his challenge and Hart was snapped within two days with a model called Donna Rice on a friend's boat, unfortunately named “Monkey Business”.

In Britain the tabloid press is unapologetic about printing saucy gossip for it's own sake, which means many politicians – Boris Johnson, for example – can wriggle free of being caught 'in flagrante' simply by saying “yes, so what?” Sex always sells, but a scandal doesn't necessarily kill a political career in Britain unless there hubris or hypocrisy are also involved.

But Clinton, who famously cheated on his wife in the Oval Office – a sin of sins in the holy of holies – was nearly impeached for it, a punishment previously reserved for Nixon for the Watergate cover-up: a genuine scandal of political misconduct. But despite a divorce rate of 50% or higher, today's American public, especially those parts dominated by a Christian value-set, demand personal perfection from politicians. The media industry, courting their audience share, goes along for the ride.

(An unpleasant side-note is that the blame has fallen much more on Paula Broadwell than on Petraeus. He has come out of this mess looking like someone with a forgiveable weakness for women that many seem to expect of powerful men. It is Broadwell who has been made the villain; a temptress who betrayed her family for personal gain; while his wife Holly Petraeus, in a breathtaking display of callousness, has been condemned in the more unsavoury corners of Twitter for being too old and too unattractive to hold on to her husband.

Even the LA Times, struggling to make sense of this issue, ran a schizophrenic column by Megan Baum entitled “The Frump Factor and Holly Petraeus” which bemoans the sexism of Holly Petraeus's treatment with one breath and describes her as “an unlikely partner for a staggeringly accomplished man” with the next.)

The underlying motive to sell more papers and chase higher ratings means that the profitable story isn't one in the public interest, but one that interests the public. This is so obvious in Britain that it goes without saying; but the national media in the US, struggling with vast audiences that encompass both rising religious prudishness and rising popular prurience, is less used to this problem.

Thus, in America, sex in and of itself has become an ever-bigger deal, but networks and newspapers must now sell sex as a security scandal because while sex always sells, they have to be more careful about being seen to sell it. That's why the Petraeus scandal was so mis-sold.

David Petraeus, pre-resignation. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution