Sleeping With the Enemy....A Postscript On Petraeus and Broadwell

Sleeping With the Enemy....A Postscript On Petraeus and Broadwell
Former CIA Director David Petraeus and biographer Paula Broadwell had an affair. Is this acceptable?

I will never forget the first time I was asked out by the subject of an interview.

I was just out of college, in my first job as a Community Relations Assistant at a small, private hospital in Chicago.  He was the Medical Director. I was 23. We were having a great back-and-forth conversation as he discussed his career and life. Good connection. Great quotes. Good times. My first major interview on my new job. And it’s gonna be a good one.  

During the course of the interview, I asked him about his interests outside of the hospital, to get a better understanding of him as a person, not just a doctor.

“I like to go dancing,” he said.

My naivete and stupidity amuses me today.  “Oh, really?,” I said, seeing a connection. “That’s one of my interests, too.”

“Well, Ms. Alison, now you’ve done it,” the Doctor said, shaking his head, smiling broadly. “I must ask you out dancing sometime.”

He gave me a wink.

Startled, I said to myself…”Oh, boy, did I just walk into that one!”  “Uh…we’ll have to talk about that one,” I said.  And moved on quickly to the next question.

Suffice to say, nothing happened. What’s more, a relationship shouldn’t have happened between a medical administrator and a very young woman assigned to writing a public relations piece about him.

In that moment, I realized that I needed to draw a curtain between my curiousity and enthusiasm for the assignment and anything that could be perceived as personal interest.  

That’s a little tough when you’re exuberant, outgoing, considered attractive and love your job.

But, fresh out of journalism school, I remembered a simple rule my professor had told the whole class. “When you write about the circus, don’t go around feeding the elephants.” 

What if I had said yes to the Medical Director and gone out dancing? What if a relationship had developed with the two of us? would I have learned about my boss, my colleagues, the inner workings of the hospital, and where could my career have gone…if only I had gone out with him?

He wasn’t married, to my knowledge. Who could it possibly hurt? Who had to know? It could have been our little secret.

Here’s the thing: secrets don’t exist in this day and age. Nor in that one.   

In the years since, I want to know what’s happened to that fine line between being a casual observer of actions, writing about them, and actually joining the party.

Or, as the movie “Almost Famous” so aptly described, as former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres said to the young scribe Cameron Crowe, who was covering a rock group based on his experiences with Led Zepplin. “Lookit, you’re not there to join the party! We already have Hunter Thompson!  We’re both professionals here. I don’t need to tell you this.”  

In the wake of the affair that derailed two storied careers: CIA Director David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell,  it’s worth asking if it’s ever a good idea to date someone who is the subject of a story. I could not have put it any clearer than a respondent to a Frank Bruni editorial in the New York Times

RVP of St. Louis, MO, thank you for expressing EXACTLY MY THOUGHTS on the subject:

“This isn’t about sex but about ethics. The General took an oath to protect the interests of the Nation. He violated that by putting himself in a compromising position. He failed in his duty by putting his self-interests above that of the Nation. If he wished to pursue his attraction, which he is obviously free to do, he should have first resigned then philandered not the other way round.

There’s an important maxim that reads “Don’t do it if you don’t want to be caught doing it”. Simple, clear, and serves as a useful sanity check device before pursuing any action.

As for Ms. Broadwell, she violated the ethics that governs the conduct of every researcher. As researchers we are supposed to be dispassionate and objective and go where the facts take us – not to editorialize. To earn a PhD we have to adhere to an extremely high ethical standard and she didn’t. All the titillation aside, that’s the simple truth.

They both failed as judged by the ethical standards that are enshrined for their respective professions. Having realized the magnitude of his failure, the General has quit. Ms. Broadwell should withdraw her book for it is not an objective account. Nothing more need be said or done on the matter from either party. Of course, the FBI’s conduct needs scrutiny, albeit without inserting malice or political calculations.

I do hope that the unseemly reporting will stop.”

There has to be a line. Having a sexual relationship with someone else gives you an intimacy that precludes all others. 

In the Petraeus-Broadwell case, they have spouses, children and families involved. Granted, each was likely separated for long periods of time. But as a writer, getting too close to your subject clouds your objectivity and judgement. And creates a nightmare if you are someday called to testify or are subpoenaed about your sources.

My advice when I lecture to college students is always the same:  Take a moment. Think twice.

And don’t feed the elephants if you’re writing about the circus!

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