Which raises another question: Why is there a different standard of private conduct for public servants than, say, for the reporters who cover them, or the lobbyists hoping they’ll approve the weapons system they’re selling? (On second thought, maybe the standards are the same, as illustrated by the resignation last week of Lockheed Martin’s incoming chief executive officer over a “close and personal relationship” with a subordinate. At least he got $3.5 million to soften the blow.)
Yes, government officials are stewards of the public trust in a way that private executives are not. Still, it’s not clear that the Puritan streak that persists in U.S. public life is serving the public interest.
Divorce rates in the military are higher than they’ve been in more than a decade. Multiple deployments are hard on everyone, from grunts to the brass. Are we willing to fire all these people if we find out about their infidelities?
Imagine the second term of President Bill Clinton had his terrible affair not consumed Congress and the rest of us. A few months ago, Petraeus watched as his friend Brett McGurk lost his chance to become ambassador to Iraq over an affair with a reporter. It didn’t matter that everyone — from former President George W. Bush to the current president — thought McGurk would be a great ambassador. He’d been exposed by emails to his then-girlfriend, now wife. Nothing unethical or criminal was found, yet they both lost their careers over it.
Once upon a time, it would have been hard to expose Petraeus. Love letters could be stashed away in a box. No more. Love may be fleeting, but email is forever. We’ve now had this technology long enough to know that any time you click “Send,” your innermost thoughts may become known not just to the recipient but to your employer, the recipient’s employer, the FBI and the New York Times. Yet we keep tapping away, day and night, giving our ephemeral feelings technological permanence. It’s a worldwide addiction. We can’t stop ourselves.
The FBI can, however. What’s criminal here is that the agency kept investigating even after realizing what it had on its hands was a reckless affair — and aren’t they all? — not a threat to national security.
We’re not Saudi Arabia. We don’t stone adulterers. The punishment suffered privately is more than enough.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.