As his achievements pile up, speculation grows that superstar Gen. David Petraeus will run for the White House. Our June cover story.
In the early stages of implementing the surge strategy in Iraq, United States military commanders started to detect that the new plan was working, but the signs of progress were overshadowed as casualties mounted while American soldiers fought to secure the cities.
During a meeting around this time, a senior officer put his arm around Gen. David Petraeus, then leading the war effort in Iraq, and advised, “You know, you’ve got a messaging problem.”
Petraeus replied, “With all due respect, what we really have is a results problem.”
In late March of this year, Petraeus recalled the encounter at a press conference held during a trip to Manchester, New Hampshire. He punctuated the story by noting, “Occasionally, I can hear my old Dutch-American sea captain father, who would periodically remind his son, ‘It’s about results, boy.’”
At a time when the U.S. is facing multiple crises at home and abroad and Americans are increasingly disenchanted with Washington, Petraeus’s record of accomplishments — most prominently helping to turn around the Iraq war that many had written off as lost — has set him apart from other national leaders. And as the Republican Party struggles to repair the image for incompetence it gained during the Bush era, Petraeus finds himself the subject of continued speculation as to whether he may seek the presidency, no matter how many times he tries to put the issue to rest.
“I’d like to see Gen. Petraeus warm up,” Bob Dole, the former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, told the Politico last fall. “I don’t know anything about his politics, whether he has an interest. It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower, in my view.”
Observers including Rep. Pete King (R-NY) and former McCain-Palin adviser Nicolle Wallace have also floated the idea of a Petraeus candidacy. As he tours the country to discuss the status of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in his current role as leader of U.S. Central Command (based in Tampa, Florida), the general constantly encounters questions about his political ambitions. So when he scheduled an appearance at Manchester’s St. Anselm College, the home of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics — and the site of presidential debates — it naturally raised eyebrows.
Petraeus has become so accustomed to the presidential speculation that he’s developed a habit of inviting the question just so he can get it out of the way. When one reporter asked him what he was doing in New Hampshire, Petraeus explained that it was part of a broader effort to be “accessible” to the American people, “to communicate to them what America’s sons and daughters are doing.” But at the end of his answer, he added, “If you want to ask a more direct question, I’d be happy to say….”
When another reporter followed up by asking whether he had considered that a visit to the Granite State might fuel presidential speculation, he launched into an emphatic denial of any desire to run.
“I thought I’d said no about as many ways as I could,” he said. “I really do mean no. We have all these artful ways of doing that. I’ve tried Shermanesque responses, which everybody goes and finds out what Sherman said was pretty unequivocally no. I’ve done several different ways. I’ve tried quoting the country song, ‘What Part of No Don’t You Understand?’ But I mean, I really do mean that. I feel very privileged to be able to serve our country. I’m honored to continue to do that as long as I can contribute, but I will not, ever, run for political office, I can assure you. And again, we have said that repeatedly and I’m hoping that people realize at a certain point you say it so many times that there’s no way you could ever flip, and start your career by flip-flopping into it.”
In spite of his repeated denials and the fact that his responsibilities in managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would, at a minimum, logistically complicate any run against President Obama in 2012, several factors are likely to ensure that Petraeus’s name keeps popping up as a potential dark horse candidate. One reason is that there’s no clear standout among the politicians frequently cited as potential Republican nominees. (Though he says he hasn’t voted since 2002, Petraeus acknowledges that he was registered as a Republican before that.) Another is that history is filled with examples of people who say that they’ll never run but then change their mind— Dwight D. Eisenhower being the most relevant one in this case. But ultimately, it’s the nature of Petraeus’s meteoric rise through the ranks, coupled with his ambition and fierce competitiveness, that will continue to make people wonder whether he’ll eventually want to take on even more responsibility.
DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS was born on November 7, 1952, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, just a few miles from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he went to college. His Dutch father, Sixtus, immigrated to New York at the beginning of World War II and went on to lead a Liberty ship. His Brooklyn-born mother, Miriam, was a librarian who, according to a recent profile in Vanity Fair, helped instill in Petraeus his love of reading.
After completing high school with honors, Petraeus went on to West Point, where he graduated in the top 5 percent of his class in 1974, while managing to finish a pre-med program as well as compete in soccer and skiing. According to the yearbook, Petraeus “was always going for it in sports, academics, leadership, and even his social life.” In fact, upon graduation, he got engaged to Holly Knowlton, whose father was superintendent of West Point at the time. His wife’s family made their home in New London, New Hampshire, which Petraeus still claims as his own official residence — a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by political reporters.
Standing at a slight 5 feet nine, Petraeus has a reputation for being incredibly tough and in remarkable physical shape, a legend that he has added to ever since being the top graduate from the grueling Army Ranger School.
In 1991, Petraeus had a brush with death at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when a soldier fell and accidentally fired an M-16 round that landed above the “A” in PETRAEUS on his uniform. The bullet shot through his chest and went out his back.
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