It’s been less than a week since General David Petraeus resigned from the CIA for having an affair with his biographer. And the scandal won’t stop metastasizing.
Questions are being raised over whether the general’s mistress, Paula Broadwell, was exposed to classified information. An FBI search revealed that Broadwell was storing classified information in her home. She also sent threatening e-mails to a Florida socialite who was so frightened that she contacted the FBI. General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is being investigated for allegedly sending inappropriate messages to the same socialite.
And in this eye of this hurricane stands Petraeus himself, former CIA director, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, former commander of coalition forces in Iraq, and formerly the most respected military figure in the United States of America.
Petraeus was a hero, the superlative public servant. Now, watching his vertiginous fall from grace, it’s hard not to lose a little idealism.
And maybe we should.
Here in Washington, many people (and especially many young people) stand in awe of the television show The West Wing. The drama about a Democratic White House, created by screenwriting superstar Aaron Sorkin, features government staffers flinging around witty lines while they solve the nation’s problems without sacrificing their values.
Public service is portrayed as uniquely noble on The West Wing. President Josiah Bartlet and his aides are occasionally tempted by Washington’s vices. But almost always, and usually within the span of one episode, they double down on their principles. When the technocratic polymaths get in trouble, it’s usually because they cling to their idealism in spite of outside pressure.
The West Wing‘s characters are flesh-and-blood humans like the rest of us. But they never seem to do anything wrong.
Normally it would be foolish to compare a television show and a real-world scandal. We watch TV dramas for thrills and escapism, after all. But among Washington’s young elite, the line between The West Wing and real life is blurry. Many were inspired to come to Washington because of the show and many more use it as a backdrop for their political careers.
Vanity Fair noticed this back in April in an insightful piece titled “West Wing Babies.” VF observed, “[T]he smart, nerdy — they might prefer ‘precocious’ — kids who grew up in the early part of the last decade worshipping the cool, technocratic charm of Sorkin’s characters have today matured into the young policy prodigies and press operatives who advise, brief, and excuse the behavior of the most powerful people in the country.”
This is absolutely true. Intrude on a conversation between young Washingtonians and chances are you’ll soon hear a West Wing reference. (“She looks like CJ Cregg!” “Oh my God, you’re right, she does look like CJ Cregg!”)
Storybook idealism in young people isn’t new or dangerous. But today’s Washington twentysomethings aren’t romanticizing the American dream or the Western frontier. Their rose-tinted glasses are focused on the federal government, the only institution in the country that can exercise coercion. And that’s where West Wing worship becomes problematic.
If you believe Josiah Bartlet or Josh Lyman are typical Washingtonians, then why view government with skepticism? In fact, why not let the feds flex their muscles as much as they want? After all bureaucrats are plucky do-gooders with rock-ribbed principles. Everyone can sleep easy. As one White House staffer told Vanity Fair, The West Wing “was idealistic and so were we. Everyone hoped politics would be like that.”
But politics isn’t like that. Politics means leasing power to people who, by their natures, are corrupted by power. That’s how a genuine war hero is reduced to a tawdry affair and possible pillow-talk leaks. Petraeus isn’t a spy novel villain, as many in the press seem to think. He’s a human being.
President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing‘s fictional president, is based on another human being: Bill Clinton. Bartlett was a fast-talking, brilliant leader who was wedded to his principles and navigated his congressional censure with impeccable dignity. Bill Clinton was a fast-talking, brilliant leader who sold out nearly everyone who believed in him and navigated his congressional impeachment by smearing women, intimidating witnesses, and lying under oath. It’s rare that you’ll see the line between fiction and the real world emblazoned that brightly.
As the repercussions from Petraeus’ sins emerge, we should remember that line. We should also remember the famous quote from James Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The second half of that aphorism is too often forgotten.
This is why conservatives are so skeptical of government power. Because Sorkin’s angels don’t exist and, at the end of the day, even General Petraeus is just human.