ROBERT SMITH, host:
Let's talk a little more about David Petraeus the man. Does he put on his uniform one leg at a time?
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Here's a little sampling of opinion.
Major General ROBERT SCALES (U.S. Army, Retired): He exudes confidence, but more importantly is that in that past he's been very successful.
Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (The Brookings Institute): Well, he's a fantastic and a very impressive person.
Major General ROBERT SCALES (U.S. Army, Retired): Once Dave gets his mind set on the course of the war, his ability to sort of sharpen focus and come up with the principles on how that war should be fought is, to my mind at least, extraordinary.
BRAND: In short, he is the man, at least according to those two men, retired Major General Robert Scales and Michael O'Hanlon of The Brookings Institution.
SMITH: We've talked to a lot of people who know David Petraeus, and it's hard to get them say anything but, you know, he's smart, qualified, a dozen other nice things short of perfect.
I spoke with Rick Atkinson, an author and Pulitzer Prize Winning war correspondent for the Washington Post.
Mr. RICK ATKINSON (Correspondent): He's not superhuman. He was, as a young major, he was known derisively as Superman by some of his contemporaries, but that was derisive, actually.
SMITH: Why do you think he got that nickname?
Mr. ATKINSON: Well, because he's a classic achiever and overachiever. He's somebody who has had a succession of patrons in the Army, starting with his father-in-law, who was a four-star general, and the superintendent at West Point when Petraeus was a cadet there. Petraeus married the superintendent's daughter, Holly Knowlton.
You know, he has taken on a series of tasks since graduating from West Point in 1974 and done most of them admirably and along the way has survived things that would have killed most people, including being shot in the chest in a training accident and having his parachute collapse in another horrible training accident that shattered his pelvis. And you know, he seems to get past these things and goes on to the next task.
SMITH: Well, let's hear a little bit more about what happened in 1991 in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when he was shot.
Mr. ATKINSON: Well, he was a battalion commander and had just taken over the battalion, and they were out a rifle range; there was a training exercise going on and a young soldier tripped as he was coming out of a bunker and his M16 discharged. I believe it was about 40 yards away from where Petraeus was standing and the round hit him in the chest, on the right side of his chest, and blew through his back.
He was, you know, immediately going into shock. Those around thought he was dying. He was MEDEVAC-ed to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, and they managed to get hold of the man reputed to be the best thoracic surgeon available in Nashville at that time, who turned out be Bill Frist, later the majority leader of the Senate.
SMITH: Does Petraeus ever talk about this or draw any lessons from it?
Mr. ATKINSON: He talks about it. He talks about how he was shot over the A in U.S. Army on his uniform shirt and if he'd been shot over the A in Petraeus, which is on the left side of his uniform shirt, he'd be dead because it would have gone through his heart.
SMITH: Now, as he moved to the military, he didn't see combat until really this invasion of Iraq. He was an aide to several four-star generals through much of his career. What does that say about him as a soldier?
Mr. ATKINSON: You're right. He had not been in combat before leading the 101st Airborne Division in the invasion of Iraq. Clearly, it was an omission from his resume and it was one that he was keenly aware of. Soldiers wear on their right sleeves of their uniforms a combat patch with the unit they've been within combat.
And Petraeus until March of 2003 was clean-sleeved. He had no combat patch, but he's certainly got one now.
SMITH: Did you get a sense from him that he understands that perhaps he's being used as a shield for the president?
Mr. ATKINSON: I think he has some sense of that. Those who are close to him worry that there's a version of pin-the-tail-on-Petraeus going on here. I think, frankly, he believes there's not a whole lot that, you know, he can legitimately do about that if that is the case.
SMITH: You were at his side when he commanded the 101st Airborne at the beginning of the Iraq war. Is there an anecdote that sticks out about him that tells us about Petraeus as a human being?
Mr. ATKINSON: Well, he's so relentlessly competitive. There are many stories of his competitiveness. I'll give you one example. It was before the war started and we were still in Kuwait and he had gone down to the docks in Kuwait City, waiting for the equipment from the 101st to arrive by ship. He had 256 helicopters he was trying to get over there by ship and put them together and get ready to fight.
And we went down one day and he'd gone on the ship and he was looking for something in particular and couldn't find it. And there was a private first class named Jonathan Elshire(ph) who was down there working on the docks and they got into sort of a trash-talking thing, Major General-then Petraeus and Private First Class Elshire. One thing lead to another and Petraeus challenged this 21-year-old kid to a push-up contest. So a ring of soldiers formed around the two of them as if they're watching a playground fight.
And Petraeus says here are the rules - chest touches ground, elbows locked, just stay with me. And so the soldiers start counting as they begin doing push-ups - four, five, six, 10, 11, 12, 20, 21, 22. I think they got to 28 and the Elshire collapsed.
Petraeus did 20 more, bounced to his feet, having not broken a sweat, and says to Pfc. Elshire, let that be a lesson. You can take that off on your income tax as part of your education, and turned on his heel and walked away, soldiers cheering and hooting.
That is Dave Petraeus. He will challenge anybody at anything at anytime. He is relentlessly competitive. He doesn't like to lose and he doesn't like to lose, whether it's to a 21-year-old kid doing push-ups or whether it's to a bunch of insurgents in Iraq.
SMITH: Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and war correspondent for the Washington Post. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. ATKINSON: Thank you.
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