The Lost Media “Cult” of David Petraeus, or The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome

Danger Room senior reporter Spencer Ackerman wrote a fascinating article about his complicity in the media hype that made General David Petraeus a hero. Without that carefully constructed pedestal, Petraeus might not have risen so high, or fallen because of a personal moral lapse. Through this lens, it’s possible that Petraeus fall came from an entirely different leadership problem than the much mentioned Bathsheba Syndrome.

Petraeus and his family, DOD photo

Petraeus and his family, DOD photo

What if Petraeus, with his fans, journalists and biographers, were participating in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” Syndrome, in which powerful people create a buzz that creates a lie-by-consensus. The exaggerated myth is harshly revealed when reality can no longer be ignored.

“Conversations with people close to Petraeus since his resignation from the CIA have been practically funereal,” Ackerman writes. “People have expressed shock, and gotten occasionally emotional. It turns out, Mansoor sighed, “David Petraeus is human after all.” I wonder where anyone could have gotten the idea he wasn’t.”

The Petraeus Myth was a strong PR narrative. An intellectual, a strategist, an includer, the General was different from other military leaders. And that story spread because his staff and his verbal abilities made reporters feel like they were getting somewhere, even when they were spreading the news he wanted them to share.

“Petraeus recognized that the spirited back-and-forth that journalists like could be a powerful weapon in his arsenal. “His ability to talk to a reporter for 45 minutes, to flow on the record, to background or off-the-record and back, and to say meaningful things and not get outside the lane too much — it was the best I’ve ever seen,” Mansoor reflects. It paid dividends. On the strength of a single tour running the 101st Airborne in Mosul, Newsweek put the relatively unknown general on its cover in 2004 under the headline “Can This Man Save Iraq?“ (It’s the first of three cover stories the magazine wrote about him.) Petraeus’ embrace of counterinsurgency, with its self-congratulatory stylings as an enlightened form of warfare that de-emphasized killing, earned him plaudits as an “intellectual,” unlike those “old-fashioned, gung-ho, blood-and-guts sort of commander[s],” as Time‘s Joe Klein wrote in 2007. This media narrative took hold despite the bloody, close-encounter street fights that characterized Baghdad during the surge.”

Ackerman notes that he was drawn in while feeling like he was doing his best as a journalist. “To be clear, none of this was the old quid-pro-quo of access for positive coverage. It worked more subtly than that: The more I interacted with his staff, the more persuasive their points seemed. Nor did I write anything I didn’t believe or couldn’t back up — but in retrospect, I was insufficiently critical. And his staff never cut off access when they disagreed with something I’d written. I didn’t realize I was thinking in their terminology, even when I wrote pieces criticizing Petraeus. A 2008 series I wrote on counterinsurgency was filled with florid descriptions like “Petraeus is no stranger to either difficulty or realism.” (Read Ackerman’s whole article here….)

So Petraeus’ effective PR machine created an image of a leader who was almost superhuman, a combination of military skill, intellectual mastery, collegial cameraderie and transparent visionary. As his myth grew, he came to represent leadership excellenceabove and beyond his ability to project or embody it. When news of his affair leaked, it didn’t take long for his believers to switch from glorification to grief — and his detractors to snicker and poke each other, crowing “I told you so!” and “I knew it all along!”

The General had no clothes — that is, the myth of his heroism could only last as long as no one commented on the fact that he is human, like the rest of us. It’s a leadership lesson that has more bite than the Bathsheba Syndrome’s sexist and individualistic moral finger shaking.

The kind of arrogance it takes to crank a media machine is not unlike the fairy tale Emperor’s vanity. The Emperor is a leader who pretends to be clothed to prove he has noble perceptions of pantomimed cloth “visible only to people fit for their position.” In modern terms, that translates into believing, and escalating, your own hype. A little authenticity and humility would have gone a long way in preventing a scandal. In both cases, arrogance caught these mythic leaders with their pants down, which cost them their dignity — at the very least.

One comment

  1. […] with the media, he was skilled, by all reports, at emotionally intelligent relationship building. (Some might call it manipulation.) But the scandal, broken open by complaints by Jill Kelley, focusing on hagiographic biographer […]

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