Jim Daly Christian Blog and Commentary

The Real Lesson Behind the General Petraeus Affair

  • Jim Daly Jim Daly is president and chief executive officer of Focus on the Family, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families thrive.
  • 2012 Nov 15

Posted by Jim_Daly Nov 14, 2012

Retired general and now-former CIA director David Petraeus was originally scheduled to testify today before Congress to answer questions about the deadly terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Instead, the man some believed a likely candidate for president is reeling from his admission of an extra-marital affair and subsequent resignation from the Central Intelligence Agency. The scandal is continuing to unfold and expand, almost hour by hour.

Even with so many details still unanswered, it’s a sad and sordid story, an example of how quickly a person’s life and reputation can be marred by moral indiscretion.

“He deeply hurt the family,” a confidant told the New York Post.

What’s often missing in the telling of extramarital affairs are the broken hearts of the many innocent individuals attached to both sides of the sin.

Scandals of this magnitude are like raging rivers with many tributaries. The implications will be far reaching, especially given political realities of the day. Analysts and pundits are already speculating and drawing conclusions, but I will defer and simply speak to the sorrow surrounding some social commentary on the subject.

The noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was a guest on this past Sunday’s Meet the Press. Unfortunately, I suspect her comments will resonate with a good many people:   

I wish we could go back to the time when the private lives of our public figures were relevant only if they directly affected their public responsibilities. What would we have done if FDR had not been our leader because he had an affair with Lucy Mercer? Think of the productive years that Clinton could have had if Monica Lewinsky hadn’t derailed him. We've got to figure out a way that we give a private sphere for our public leaders. We’re not going to get the best people in public life if we don’t do that. This thing is really sad. This man was a great general, a great leader, and for his career to come to an end because of a private matter that affects his family and him and evidently doesn’t have national security concerns. I don’t know how you unravel it, but I wish we could.

We all wish the affair could be unraveled, but I strongly disagree with Ms. Goodwin’s main premise that private lives are more or less inconsequential to public service, specifically among leaders.

For the sake of the argument, let’s set aside momentarily the religious basis of a person’s morality. Instead, let’s consider simply the importance of truth and trust in a leader’s life, especially someone responsible for the safety and security of others.

Let me ask you:

Are those two characteristics – truth and trust – dispensable or absolutely critical to leadership?

It would seem that Ms. Goodwin is suggesting the former, that the importance of trustworthiness and truthfulness are contingent upon one’s affinity for the person or party rather than bedrock principles on which to build strong leadership.

The idea that high standards somehow discourages the “best” to apply is also curious to me. From my seat, the establishment of high standards doesn’t discourage. Instead, it encourages young people to aspire to greatness and meet those high standards with excellence.   

Modern critics have grown weary of the conservative argument that a person who cannot be trusted in private can somehow be trusted in public. But fatigue of the facts doesn’t negate the authenticity or veracity of the principle.

Scandal of this nature highlights the brokenness of humanity and the reminder that we’re all just one step from making a bad decision with dire consequences. It is the wise person who acknowledges his or her own frailty and humbly steps forward with the attitude, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  

In the aftermath of a contentious election and now a scandal that leaves many heartbroken, let’s commit to praying for this nation as well as those individuals directly and personally hurting over this story.

RNS photo

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