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Michael Gerson: The downfall of David Petraeus

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: November 13, 2012

By all accounts, Petraeus' personal failure did not involve the abuse of power, criminal acts or security breaches. But his case also demonstrates how messy infidelity can quickly become — messy enough to involve harassing emails and to attract the attention of the FBI. People at their most ardent are also at their least rational. And this is most damaging in fields, such as intelligence, where the essence of leadership is judgment.

An exceptional life

Petraeus might have fought for his job. Instead, he admitted to showing “extremely poor judgment.” After a career dedicated to high standards, Petraeus chose to apply those standards to himself.

The rest of us, unfortunately, are left without the services of an exceptional public servant. We are also left to ponder the conflicted nature of many successful leaders. There seems to be some connection between self-confidence, charisma and personal recklessness. For some, it is the expression of hubris — the thrill of living by a different set of rules than normal mortals. For Petraeus, it seems more like hamartia — the fatal flaw or error of an honorable man, resulting in disproportionate misfortune. This is the essence of tragedy — in this case, a tragedy for himself, his family and his country.

Yet an exceptional life cannot be reduced to its lowest moment. Petraeus' judgment was poor. His career was needlessly shortened. But nothing Petraeus has contributed to his nation has been undone.