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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The US election is now a referendum on the role of women

Melania Trump's recent defence of her husband's indefensible comments, shows why a Cinton victory is vital.

Maybe one day, when this brutal presidential election is over, Hillary Clinton will view Melania Trump with sympathy. The prospective Republican First Lady’s experience sometimes seems like an anxiety dream rerun of Clinton’s own time stumping for job of wife-in-chief back in 1992. Even before Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination, rumours about his infidelities were being kicked up, and in a bid to outflank them, the Clintons appeared in a joint interview on the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes. “I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said, the extreme humiliation of her situation registering as perhaps the tiniest flicker across her perfectly composed face. “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

Another decade, another TV interview, another consort to a nominee called on to defend her husband’s honour. After the release of Donald Trump’s grotesque “grab her by the pussy” comments from 2005, Melania headed out to do her wifely duty. But where the Clintons in 1992 had the benefit of uncertainty – the allegations against Bill were unproven – Melania is going up against the implacable fact of recorded evidence, and going up alone. Even leaving aside the boasts about sexual assault, which she’s at pains to discount, this still leave her talking about a tape of her husband declaring that he “tried to fuck” another woman when he was only newly married.

What Melania has to say in the circumstances sounds strained. How did she feel when she heard the recordings? “I was surprised, because [...] I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private,” she tells CNN's Anderson Cooper, giving the extraordinary impression that she’s never heard her husband sparring with shock-jock Howard Stern on the latter’s radio show, where he said this kind of thing all the time.

She minimises the comments as “boys talk” that he was “egged on” to make, then tries to dismiss women’s allegations that Trump behaves precisely as he claims to by ascribing their revelations to conspiracy – “This was all organized from the opposition.” (Shades here of Clinton’s now-regretted claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her own husband during the Lewinsky scandal.) “I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” she says, though this is a strangely contorted thing to say when her whole purpose in the interview is to convince the public that he shouldn’t be believed when he says he grabs pussies and kisses women without even waiting because when you’re a celebrity you can do that.

Melania’s speech to the Republican convention bore more than a passing resemblance to elements of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2008, but in fact Melania is working to a much, much older script for political wives: the one that says you will eat platefuls of your husband’s shit and smile about it if that’s what it takes to get him in power. It’s the role that Hillary had to take, the one that she bridled against so agonisingly through the cookie-competitions and the office affairs and, even in this election cycle, Trump’s gutter-level dig that “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Clinton soldiered through all that, in the process both remaking the office of First Lady and making her own career: “a lawyer, a law professor, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, a US senator, secretary of state. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime – more than Barack, more than Bill,” as Michelle Obama said in a speech last week. It was a speech that made it stirringly clear that the job of a First Lady is no longer to eat shit, as Obama launched into an eloquent and furious denunciation of Donald Trump.

A Trump win, said Obama, would “[send] a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated.” She’s right. From the moment Clinton was a contender for this election, this wasn’t merely a vote on who should lead the United States: it became a referendum on the role of women. From the measly insistences of Bernie Sanders voters that they’d love a woman president, just not the highly qualified woman actually on offer, to commentators’ meticulous fault-finding that reminds us a woman’s place is always in the wrong, she has had to constantly prove not only that she can do the job but that she has the right even to be considered for it.

Think back to her on that 60 Minutes sofa in 1992 saying she’s “not some little woman standing by her man.” Whatever else the Clinton marriage has been, it’s always been an alliance of two ambitious politicians. Melania Trump makes herself sound more like a nursemaid charged with a truculent child when she tells Cooper “sometimes say I have two boys at home, I have my young son and I have my husband.” Clinton has always worked for a world where being a woman doesn’t mean being part-nanny, part-grabbable pussy. Melania says she doesn’t want pity, but she will receive it in abundance. Her tragic apologetics belong to the past: the Clinton future is the one Michelle Obama showed us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.