Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy, shared a link on Twitter about an hour ago, and prefaced it with a wonderfully understated description: “Interesting letter,” he wrote. Those who clicked on the link found a July installment of “The Ethicist,” the longstanding New York Times Magazine column taken over a little while back by Chuck Klosterman. The second letter in this particular installment was titled “My Wife’s Lover,” and it begins with what, under the circumstances, are some pretty striking opening lines.
“My wife is having an affair with a government executive,” it begins. “His role is to manage a project whose progress is seen worldwide as a demonstration of American leadership. (This might seem hyperbolic, but it is not an exaggeration.)” The letter writer goes on to explain that “exposing the affair will create a major distraction that would adversely impact the success of an important effort,” and to ask whether it is OK for him to “suffer in silence for the next year or two for a project” he believes “must succeed,” or whether he is obligated to acknowledge it in some way and “finally force closure.”
Now, this is the part where I say that any apparent resemblance to a scandal that just broke today involving General David Petraeus, until very recently head of the CIA, and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, may be a complete coincidence. Some on Twitter have already reacted skeptically to the notion that it is anything more than that, including my Slate colleague Allison Benedikt, who commented, “What ‘government executive’ is not having an affair with some guy’s wife?” To which Slate contributor Ruth Graham added, “would anyone really repeatedly refer to heading the CIA as a ‘project’? Doesn’t sound quite right.”
Graham and Benedikt may very well be correct. So I will simply note the striking juxtaposition of the letter from July with today’s news—and will also point to what, especially under the (perhaps entirely coincidental) circumstances, is a pretty remarkable answer from Klosterman. He told the letter writer that he should tell his wife he wanted to separate, “just as you would if she were sleeping with the mailman.” There was no reason, he said, to reveal the affair in a public way. Then, having offered solid advice, he went a little further:
The fact that you’re willing to accept your wife’s infidelity for some greater political good is beyond honorable. In fact, it’s so over-the-top honorable that I’m not sure I believe your motives are real. Part of me wonders why you’re even posing this question, particularly in a column that is printed in The New York Times.
….I halfway suspect you’re writing this letter because you want specific people to read this column and deduce who is involved and what’s really going on behind closed doors (without actually addressing the conflict in person). That’s not ethical, either.
That strikes me as an impressively insightful read of the letter writer’s motives—whoever he is. I have emailed Klosterman for comment, by the way, and will update this post if I hear back from him.
Update: Hugo Lindgren, editor of the New York Times Magazine, took to Twitter this afternoon to say that they had looked into the matter, and, “based on our factchecking,” the column is not about the Petraeus affair. Score one for Allison Benedikt. And, of course, the guessing games—who was it about, then?—have already begun.