What Petraeus Scandal Could Mean For Working Women

The CIA, an extramarital affair, and shirtless photos — host Michel Martin and the Beauty Shop ladies weigh in on the scandal surrounding former CIA chief David Petraeus. They discuss who is involved, who risked the most, and what the fallout might be.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, during Native American Heritage Month, we've been answering questions you might have about Native Americans but were afraid to ask. We're talking to the author of a book by that name. Today, we talk about pop culture and what crosses the line between tribute and insult. That's next.

But, first, it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on the week's news with a panel of women writers, journalists and commentators. Sitting in their chairs for a new do this week are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of the website, The Wise Latina Club. Mary Louise Kelly, former NPR intelligence correspondent. Bridget Johnson is Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That is a conservative libertarian commentary and news website. They're all here in Washington, D.C. and joining us from NPR West in Culver City, California is Mekeisha Madden Toby. She is a feature writer and blogger for MSN TV.

Ladies, welcome to everybody. Thanks for joining us.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Thanks for having us.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Great to be here.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

MEKEISHA MADDEN TOBY: Glad to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, you know we have to start with the scandal surrounding the two top generals and, you know, you might need a few highlighters and a diagram to keep track of this one, but just to bring everybody up to date, David Petraeus resigned as CIA chief last week, citing an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. That liaison was exposed after authorities discovered that Broadwell had been sending threatening emails to a family friend of the Petraeus', Jill Kelley.

Well, this week, General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is under investigation for allegedly sending inappropriate emails to Jill Kelley himself. It's also been reported by the Wall Street Journal that the FBI agent who initiated the investigation after receiving a complaint from Kelley was also being investigated because his officials - his superiors thought he was becoming obsessed with it and had sent inappropriate emails to Kelley, too.

All I can say is OMG. OMG. So, Mary Louise Kelly, you're a former intelligence correspondent and you are writing a novel - a soon to be published novel. And I just have to ask your reaction to this. Is this the kind of thing that, if you had reported it, your superiors would say, oh, no, no, no. There's no way.

KELLY: I mean, it's so implausible. As you say, I'm trying to write a spy novel. I've just written my first one. People keep saying, this is great fodder for the second and I keep saying, if you turned in this plot line to my editor in New York, she would have a giggle and throw it out the window. It's so implausible, so many strange plot twists. You mentioned the FBI official who was involved. By the time we got to the revelation that he had been sending shirtless photographs to one of the women at the heart of this, you just have to throw your hands up in the air and say, come on. There's no way. I mean, you know, what four star general are we going to hear is swept up in this tomorrow?

MARTIN: One question, though, that you can answer for us just based on your experience as a reporter is that I think that people outside of the circle have the sense that there's a very tight circle around these people and it's very hard to meet them on those terms and I wanted to know. Is that true? I mean, just as a working journalist yourself, would you have had that kind of access to these top figures?

KELLY: Well, I hope I wouldn't have had exactly that kind of access to General Petraeus, but I will say, yeah. You know, I have covered the Pentagon and the intelligence beats and been imbedded and gone to Afghanistan and interviewed these guys on the ground.

Clearly, Paula Broadwell enjoyed a very unusual level of access that was raising eyebrows, even at the time that General Petraeus was in Afghanistan and she was making repeated visits profiling him. If we take the timeline at face value, this affair did not start until after that, until he returned to Washington and became CIA director. Unusual access, yes.

On the other hand, do these people take your calls? Yeah. Do they return your emails? Yeah, they do. So was there an unusual level of correspondence going on? And, clearly, in the case of General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, very inappropriate. Yes. But - yeah. They take your calls. They return your emails. You see these people at cocktail parties. The CIA holds a Christmas party and birthday parties and reporters come and this is part of how you get a story.

MARTIN: OK. Sure. OK. So, in many ways, it's a normal workplace, even though it seems very unusual. Just one thing I do want to clarify, that General Petraeus has acknowledged having an extramarital affair. He said this explicitly in his statement resigning, but I do think it's important to note that General Allen has denied that his relationship and connection to Jill Kelley is inappropriate in any way.

You know, Bridget Johnson, I wanted to ask that. It's been reported that General Petraeus is one of the few administration officials respected by politicians on the right and the left. Is that true from your perspective, too?

JOHNSON: This is true and there was a lot of shock when this happened and, you know, a lot of the fallout from this, though, is focusing on the shock of intelligence committee members saying, wait a second. We heard about this on the news, you know, and by law, if there is an operational matter that could jeopardize national security, then the four corners, the heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees are supposed to be met with and apprised on the situation, so there's a lot of fallout on a procedural level coming down, but a lot of people are disappointed that Petraeus fell.

MARTIN: And, on the procedural issues, I know that the conservative media has been very interested in the whole circumstances around the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: Can you just - and General Petraeus was actually scheduled to testify on this and may yet do so.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: But can you just help me understand? What is the overall narrative that the conservative media is interested in here? What's their issue?

JOHNSON: You know, I think a lot of people didn't know how much legs that the Benghazi scandal would have after the election. I think there was a sense in the conservative media that some conservatives who weren't that interested in foreign policy before were suddenly using Benghazi as like a, you know, spear to get the president with.

MARTIN: To say what, though? That they're not competent? I mean, what's the - my point - what's the narrative that they're going for?

JOHNSON: To say that the American public was lied to.

MARTIN: And to say...

JOHNSON: That they knew that it was a terrorist attack, that they were unprepared for a terrorist attack with this whole narrative of al-Qaida being on the run and then - so, if the Petraeus scandal was sat on for electoral purposes or if it was sat on to delay his Benghazi testimony because he was just in Benghazi a few days before the election, then the two narratives are going to feed into each other.

MARTIN: I got it. OK. Mary Louise, you wanted to add something briefly?

KELLY: I was just adding - this is Mary Louise jumping in here - yeah - that the conservative complaint was the politics of it and that was this - some sort of admission that the Obama administration had not successfully prosecuted the war on terror.

MARTIN: OK.

KELLY: Was not protecting Americans in the way that the Obama campaign was saying they were.

MARTIN: OK. Viviana, I want to kind of switch gears from the foreign policy aspect and national security aspects of this for a minute just to the workplace aspect of that, if I can call it that. I just want to play a clip of Paula Broadwell talking about General Petraeus during an interview about her book. Remember, she wrote this biography, as we said. This interview was last February.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

PAULA BROADWELL: You know, it's not - it's not a hagiography. I'm not in love with David Petraeus, but I think he does present a terrific role model for young people, for executives, for men and women, no matter what. There's a great role model there who is values-oriented, who speaks the truth to power, who shows a great example of taking initiative and other qualities that we should all be interested in ourselves and promoting in others.

MARTIN: You know, Viviana, I was interested in your take on this as a journalist and me, too, frankly, and all of us who've worked in workplaces that often don't have a lot of other women in them and I'm wondering, what's your reaction to this?

HURTADO: Well, I ended up speaking, of course, to my oracle, who's also known as Mommy and she said to me something. She said, remember what I've always told you since you were a little girl - you and your sister. (Foreign language spoken) and that basically means that men will always make a proposal, indecent or otherwise, but the women hold the power to accept or to deny. And so I just want to be clear that, in no moment am I blaming women, but there is something to be said and there really needs to be a call to women to not only denounce the patriarchy which we've read a lot about, certainly, but also to just really step up and to hand - and to have it start with ourselves, to have us start handling ourselves professionally and relying on our brains and not on our cleavage.

And I think that's what's extraordinary to me about Paula Broadwell, is how remarkably accomplished and intelligent this woman is. She's a West Point grad. She's a marathoner. She's written a, you know, biography. I mean, she's incredibly accomplished and I think that, yes, men and women get tangled up every single day and we don't know the details of who initiated or who didn't, but what I do know...

MARTIN: That's my point. How do you know that she - that he was the one who was proposing and she is the one who's refusing? How do you know she wasn't the one proposing? How do you know that?

HURTADO: It's possible, but I can't help but think of what Mary Louise Kelly said, which is this incredible access that she was given and this - I feel that there is an element of - sometimes, women are completely intoxicated by power or by being able to reach it and they're going to work it, girl, in the work environment, but what does that mean? It also means that, you know, there is just going to be an unfortunate chain of events that are going to be unleashed and there's a lot of people, by the way, who are casualties in this.

So, you know what? Don't do it, girl. Instead of work it, girl, don't do it, girl. Your integrity, your credibility is going to be intact. Your family is going to be intact and guess what? If there is some nonsense, if the man in this power dynamic is initiating it, then you've got your credibility intact and that, by the way, is great grounds to file a complaint.

MARTIN: I don't know. Mekeisha, what do you think about all this? Because, you know, I'm so interested in your take on this, too, because working in the field of entertainment, I mean, this whole question of the role that sexuality plays in decision-making is something that is discussed to this day. I mean, there was just this Alfred Hitchcock movie just came out, which we talked about previously...

TOBY: Which was so good. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...which was so good. But you also talked about that he essentially tried to ruin Tippi Hedren's career because she refused to...

TOBY: And he did.

MARTIN: Well, he did ruin her career because she refused his sexual advances, but then again, you have to say, is it always the man making the initiation here? I don't know. What do you take? What's your thing on this?

TOBY: It's interesting that you said that because there's so many other things that are coming out of it, just sort of like it's power sexy because, you know, by conventional standards, David Petraeus is not on the surface sexy. So is it his power that she was drawn to? Was it her brain that he was drawn to? Like, there's all this discussion and there's the whole "Homeland" element. People are so fascinated with that show right now and it's sort of like this totally comes like - it's like a plot out of "Homeland."

And, in fact, you would need a corkboard to sort of tie all these people together just like they do on "Homeland" and so, like, there's this weird sort of like, you know, interest in it and people are excited by it and it's like tantalizing and it shouldn't be, but it is and it's blown out of proportion and people can't get enough of it. It's the new, you know...

MARTIN: Is it blown out of proportion?

TOBY: ...Monica Lewinsky thing.

MARTIN: Well, I can see that, but Mary Louise Kelly, is it blown out of proportion?

KELLY: I don't think it has been blown out of proportion. I think there are legitimate national security questions that are being raised by this, everything from the FBI's role to why Paula Broadwell had classified documents on her computer and how she got them and whether you think he should have resigned or not, this has brought down the head of the CIA. It's now drawn into the web the top commanding general in Afghanistan, and we'll see where the investigation of General Allen goes.

But I just want to raise - there are all these questions - legitimate about who started it and who was attracted to who, for why. But the consequences of it will be very different for each of them, you know, in terms of where their careers for either of them go from here.

MARTIN: Well, let's - because they were the protagonists. I'm more interested in the collateral damage. My question is, if you were still working the intelligence beat, do you think this would affect your access? Now, people would be afraid to be seen with you or you think that it would affect the way other women working that beat are treated?

KELLY: Every time there is a huge scandal, access gets pulled back and you have a harder time getting people to return your calls for a little while. They got burned.

MARTIN: Bridget, briefly, and then we're going to move on.

JOHNSON: Well, I think that the Paula Broadwells of the world make it harder for those of us in journalism who cover male-dominated fields like defense and law enforcement. You know...

HURTADO: Absolutely.

JOHNSON: You know, this assumption that we're there for the beefcake, you know, and - no. We're there for the stories. These are topics that are...

HURTADO: Or the shirtless FBI guys, says Viviana.

(LAUGHTER)

TOBY: Even if you cover sports, this is sort of an issue because anything - like you say, any male-dominated field - it just makes it seem like women journalists are less credible.

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: I think the consequences are up and down the line. I think there are also executives who might hesitate to put a woman in a role where he is a mentor out of fear for how this would be perceived, you know. So I have to tell you that that's what annoys me about this. I mean, obviously, the national security issues are important and very real, but the part that irritates me - I'm thinking about, you know, how many young women who would benefit from mentoring by a senior male and that senior male would - might be thinking, you know what? I don't want any appearance of impropriety so I'm going to skip over you and go to the traditional where people won't be raising questions.

But, then again, speaking of our next story, maybe not. You know, maybe not because here's the second story I want to talk about and, you know, I apologize if there's an ick factor here, but you know, we have to talk about it. The character at the center of some other, you know, nasty allegations recently is this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ELMO'S SONG")

KEVIN CLASH: (as Elmo) He loves to sing. La, la, la, la. Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Elmo) Oh, sing it.

CLASH: (as character) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song.

MARTIN: You know, we debated whether to play that, but you know, it's kind of germane here because the puppeteer behind Elmo, Kevin Clash, took a leave of absence from Sesame Street. It emerges that he had been accused of initiating a sexual relationship with a man and the young man initially said he was only 16 at the time. He has since very quickly recanted the story, saying that the relationship occurred after he was 18. Kevin Clash said all along that the relationship was consensual and it was when the young man was an adult and that this was, in fact, a nasty relationship quarrel, if you would.

So, Mekeisha Madden Toby, I'm going to start with you. Sesame Street has issued a statement saying that they're "happy that Kevin can move on," unquote, but they didn't specify whether he would be returning to the show and, you know, you cover entertainment. What do you think?

TOBY: And they may not bring him back and that's the sort of unfortunate part of it. You know, I was talking about it with my husband who covers sports. He's a sports editor and he was reminding me about the Bernie Fine case, and I don't know if you are familiar with this, but he was the assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University and, once the impropriety was - or he was cleared of charges that he had, you know, sexually abused some children, he still never got his job back. He's still fighting to clear up his reputation and he may never, ever work in, you know, collegial sports again.

And so it's sort of unfortunate, one of those things that, even if he doesn't face criminal charges - in the case of Kevin Clash, that wasn't an issue. It was more of a, you know, what was going on and did this guy have a case? You know, it didn't get to the criminal element or criminal charges yet, but...

MARTIN: So you don't think he's going to - you think his career is ruined?

TOBY: He may not. I mean, I think, not in that capacity. I think he'll - you know, maybe they'll work with him behind the scenes or something like that, but it'll be fascinating to see if they actually bring him back as the puppeteer for Elmo again.

MARTIN: Mary Louise, I'm going to ask you to take your national security hat off and put your mom hat on.

KELLY: Yeah.

MARTIN: As the mom of two boys, I mean, does it make you hesitate to sort of - to think of him in that light?

KELLY: You know, I have to say it doesn't. I mean, there's Elmo, the puppet who is on Sesame Street and then there's the man who gives him a voice who's an actor. They're separate to me. I think it would be terribly sad, though, if he weren't able to come back. If there really is no truth to these allegations and they've been recanted, then you know, it's a shame. It's clearly been a painful episode, but...

MARTIN: Move on.

KELLY: ...move on.

MARTIN: Bridget, what do you think?

JOHNSON: I mean, it was suspicious from the beginning when you read that the alleged victim went to his employer first and then, yeah, so when there was speculation of - this might be a lovers' quarrel, you know, that kind of came to light. I think, because of the sensitivity of the charges, it's really damaging for his career. I'm not sure how he can come back, but you know, there is a certain ick factor, gay or straight, with a 46-year-old and an 18-year-old, I have to say.

MARTIN: Well, I ask - Viviana, that's my question to you, then. Would there be the same ick factor if you had a 46-year-old with a 22-year-old woman? Would we even be talking about this?

HURTADO: We probably wouldn't and, you know, I think this is a really - this is also a story about this incredible wild west of an Internet, you know, media culture that we live in. I mean, really, anybody that has a claim, an idea, a falsehood, a truth has a microphone nowadays and it's magnified. There's just no filter and it's, on one hand, amazingly powerful and democratic, but it can also ruin someone's life.

MARTIN: We'll have to see. We'll keep an eye on this. Thanks, all. Mekeisha Madden Toby is a feature writer and blogger for MSN TV. She joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Mary Louise Kelly is a former NPR intelligence correspondent. She's the author of the soon to be released spy thriller, "Unnamed Sources." Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media, conservative libertarian commentary and news website. And Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief at the website, The Wise Latina Club. They were all here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you all.

KELLY: Thanks, Michel.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

HURTADO: Thank you.

TOBY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, in the latest in our series of conversations for Native American Heritage Month, we talk about Native Americans in pop culture.

ANTON TREUER: Sometimes, a movie is still the barometer by which a lot of people will judge native culture or contemporary issues.

MARTIN: More on that next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: In 1989, five young African-American and Latino teenagers confessed to a terrible crime, raping and beating a young white woman. The problem is they didn't do it.

RAYMOND SANTANA: Once you have a person broken down to the point that they just want to get out of a room, then you can pretty much get them to say anything.

MARTIN: Raymond Santana is featured in a new film about the case and he tells us more about it next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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