War Stories

The Rehabilitation of David Petraeus

He was America’s top general. How does he plan to win hearts and minds this time?

Former CIA director and retired general David H. Petraeus speaks as the keynote speaker at the University of Southern California annual dinner for veterans and ROTC students, in Los Angeles, March 26, 2013.
Former CIA director and retired general David H. Petraeus speaks as the keynote speaker at the University of Southern California annual dinner for veterans and ROTC students, in Los Angeles, March 26, 2013.

Photo by Alex Gallardo/Reuters

David Petraeus is back, and the questions now are “What next?” and “Will anyone care?”

The retired general’s speech Tuesday night at the University of Southern California marked his first public address since he resigned under scandal as CIA director last November.

It was significant that he spoke at a dinner honoring military veterans and their families—and that, on the same trip, with much less fanfare, he met with the campus ROTC cadets and with leaders of Los Angeles veterans organizations. Petraeus had told friends, during his five months of exile, that he would have to make amends with fellow soldiers before re-entering the world. And so while he didn’t explicitly mention his extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, he apologized for “the circumstances” that “caused such pain for my family, friends, and supporters.”

The occasion was a bit different from the usual celebrity mea culpa. In the military world, adultery is still a serious breach of conduct, even a violation of the U.S. Code of Military Justice. Few officers in recent times have been court-martialed or demoted for marital infidelity, but many have been shunned or effectively barred from promotion. Petraeus resigned from the CIA when his affair was revealed, in part out of shame for violating the code. (President Obama sat on his letter of resignation for 24 hours and accepted it only after Petraeus insisted.)

His re-emergence into public life has been carefully managed by Robert Barnett, the consigliere to many members of the Washington elite in search of second chapters (or simply lucrative book contracts), including Bill and Hillary Clinton, James Carville and Mary Matalin, George Stephanopolous, James Baker, Dan Quayle, Laura Bush, George Tenet, and many more.

For two months after leaving the CIA, Petraeus stayed at home alone, reading books or phoning and emailing friends and colleagues, while pedaling incessantly on his exercise bike. (His wife, Holly, spent her days, as usual, at a high-powered job in charge of veterans’ issues at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.*) After a TV crew took away the tripod-mounted camera down the street from his Arlington, Va., home, he ventured out to jog or ride a moving bicycle. Gradually, he began to attend small dinner parties at the houses of friends, including a few senators. Around the start of this year, he reserved a table at the Cosmos Club, a private restaurant on Washington’s Embassy Row, where he invited friends and colleagues for lunch, in an effort to mend old relationships and build new ones.

Meanwhile, under Barnett’s guidance, he leafed through the dozens of job offers pouring in from corporate boards, global equity companies, consulting firms, think tanks, universities, speakers’ bureaus, and TV news networks. He has told friends that some of these offers are “unbelievably lucrative” but that, whatever he ends up doing, he will want to keep at least a hand in public policy issues. He earned a Ph.D. from Princeton in the mid-1980s, is widely considered a leader among the Army’s corps of intellectual officers, and has long felt at home among academics and think-tank analysts. He will also almost certainly play some part in veterans’ issues, and is known to be in frequent contact with Sid Goodfriend, chairman and founder of American Corporate Partners, which mentors veterans on business matters.

He will announce his new career path soon. Friends say he’ll probably take on a mix of jobs to satisfy all these angles and desires.

His day at USC this week was kept deliberately low-key. He gave no interviews to the media; his meetings, apart from the evening’s speech, were unannounced and held out of the public eye. This too was deliberate. He realizes that the scandal dealt a blow to his image. It wouldn’t look good, or feel right, to jump back into the limelight, full bore, as if a few sentences of apology, recited to a sympathetic audience, were all it took to undo the damage.

Yet at some point David Petraeus will want to soak in the limelight again. It is in his nature. And he is a talented, creative leader; few would dispute that he has much to offer to the right kind of organization. It’s not entirely clear, though, just what is the right kind of organization. He has spent his entire career, nearly 40 years, in the military and intelligence worlds. In his USC speech, he said, “There is often a view that, because an individual was a great soldier, he or she will naturally do well in, and transition effortlessly to, the civilian world. In reality, the transition from military service to civilian pursuits is quite challenging.” He was talking about the work of veterans assistance groups, but, whether or not he meant to do so, he was also talking about himself.

He also said in his USC speech, “I join you, keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago.” He didn’t acknowledge, though he must surely know, that this light has not only changed color but also dimmed. It’s been almost five months since he left public office, but it’s been 19 months since he’s been in the public eye. (For his 14 months as director of the CIA, he steeped himself in the agency’s culture of secrecy.) That’s an eternity in the age of cable news. In the meantime, his tactical successes in Iraq have faded from view; his legacy in Afghanistan was less than triumphant. For much of the public, he will have to rebuild a reputation, if a public reputation is something that matters to him. One sign of his decline, in this respect, is that when Michael Gordon, the New York Times’ military reporter, got an advance copy of Petraeus’ USC speech, his editors buried the story at the bottom of Page A-17.

So Petraeus’ future is his to create. He will certainly make a lot of money, but he has to do something more than just that, for the sake of his image and his own conscience. (I don’t think that money has ever been his main goal; nor, by the way, do I think he wants, or has ever wanted, to run for president or vice president.) In the last decade, Petraeus crafted an image, and tackled challenges, that made him the most famous American general of his time. For this reason alone, it will be interesting to see what he weaves in the coming decade.

*Correction, March 28, 2013: This article originally stated that Holly Petraeus works at the Consumer Protection Agency. In fact, she works at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Return.)