Poor David Petraeus. He's become the joke that keeps on giving. Comedian-satirist Stephen Colbert mockingly attached these monikers to the salaciousness of the Petraeus saga: "General's Hospital" and the "Love Pentagon."
It's a cast with five key stars in the plot. Apparently the four stars on each of Petraeus' uniform epaulets represent each of his co-stars in this military soap opera. Nevertheless, the good general is perched right in the center of this reality show being played out on 24-hour cable, social media, tabloids, Google searches, news-feature magazines and Twitter right in front of our "i's" -- the iPhones, iPads, etc.
It's shameful -- and shocking -- that the 60-year-old Petraeus is out of a job after his predecessor, the forgotten general, Stanley McChrystal, was forced out, essentially for insubordination toward the Obama White House. Call it General Despair.
For Petraeus, the digital media have been Dickensian: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Petraeus was known to assiduously use email to communicate his message with a persistent media; and damning emails during his illicit affair were at the core of his downfall.
"It's really sad that we've had two senior and obviously brilliant officers blow up their own careers -- Petraeus now, and Stanley McChrystal with his Rolling Stone interview," said Charles Maier, professor of history at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. "My sense is that McChrystal's breach would have been considered the more serious one in the 1940s."
Imagine if today's media outlets/devices were en vogue during D-Day -- June 6, 1944. Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower may not have seen the first landing craft packed with Allied soldiers hit the Normandy beaches in France. Eisenhower, based in England at the time, was the architect of D-Day, which essentially marked the beginning of the end for Nazi madman Adolf Hitler and his vaunted Wehrmacht (or German "war machine").
Eisenhower was rumored to have had an affair with his personal driver, Kay Summersby, an auburn-haired beauty from Ireland who previously had been a model before she enlisted in the British Mechanized Transport Corps. Now, how about a time-capsule moment? Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and the author of "Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons," says Eisenhower could have faced a major headache, similar to Petraeus' predicament today, even though Ike's relationship was ambiguous at best, but was burdened by perception.
Said Troy: "Today's prudish, invasive, 'Gotcha' press would have made the Ike-Kay relationship the defining fact about Ike rather than minor, insignificant acts, like his brilliant D-Day plan or his general stewardship of this extraordinarily powerful army assembled to defeat the Nazis."
OK, Troy is being a bit facetious about the "minor, insignificant acts," but you get his point how a major moment with astronomical stakes suddenly could take a back seat to the sensational in today's media frenzy. Eisenhower, a transformational figure in his era, enjoyed the benefits of hagiography during a non-invasive media age. If Eisenhower were forced to resign, it could have dramatically altered the course of the war in Europe -- and civilization as we know it in the process.
Petraeus resigned as CIA director before the media frenzy could sink its teeth into debating his next step. His decision was affected -- really hammered home -- by email technology; with Eisenhower, we have seen his written letters to his wife, Mamie, during World War II. In them, Eisenhower admitted his loneliness but incessantly tried to reaffirm his love for Mamie while sometimes making what appeared to be veiled references to Kay. Yet, Kay or no Kay, Ike wrote Mamie approximately twice a week -- that's 319 letters within a three-year span.
Would Ike have resigned if his supposed affair had developed into a possible scandal, a la Petraeus? "I could see him getting humiliated or being forced to resign due to the 'non-affair,' despite his obvious skills," Troy said, "... and the country would have been deprived of an extraordinary hero and leader."
Added Maier of Harvard: "But the bottom line -- this stuff is Shakespearean and not just an artifact of modern technology."
That's an all too-familiar scenario.
Gregory Clay, assistant sports editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service, can be reached at email@example.com.