David grew up in the same little New York backwater where I spent most of my adult life. My kids went to the same schools he did, even had some of the same long-lived teachers, went to nursery school at the same Presbyterian church where he had once worshipped. My parents owned a house right around the corner from his parents'. (Scarily, the name of our street was Homeland Avenue!)
David's high school sweetheart was the daughter of the realtor who sold me and my husband our house. The same year David graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I'd gotten got my first newspaper job, with West Point being part of my shared beat. Just missed him, before he went on to his storied career of doing 1000 pushups an hour after being shot. I exaggerate, but not by much. The legend was already beginning.
(I hated doing stories at West Point. I couldn't stand, as a 20-something, being called "Ma'am" by 20-something cadets. Besides, I was still a hippie just coming off a college career of Vietnam protests. Don't get me started on having to cover William Westmoreland giving a speech. I cringe whenever I think of it.)
I never flirted with Peaches, as he was called in high school. If I ever crossed paths with him, I don't remember him. I didn't go to school there, since my family didn't set down new roots in a smaller house till my sister and I were already in college.(But I ended up staying, long after my family had departed.) In a town of only 3,000 people, it seems likely that I must have passed him on the street.
|High School Peaches|
I did end up flirting quite a bit with his father, though. The late Sixtus Petraeus used to make weekly visits to the local newspaper where I worked, to buy the paper and shoot the breeze. He was a nice man who never talked about his kid, at least not to me. Of course, I never asked! My son later worked for the same utility company that Petraeus Sr. had before his retirement.
One of Peaches' elementary school teachers, Miss Janet Dempsey, became a regular volunteer at the local library used book store when she retired. She took a shine to my son, and used to set aside all the old National Geographics for him. Miss Janet Dempsey was quite impressed with my son's passion for National Geographics! But when the New York Times tracked her down as part of their Hometown Boy Makes Good hagiography, she was blithely unaware of the burgeoning Petraeus Cult of Personality. She went off script, telling them she hadn't been all that impressed with young David. His sister, she said, had been much smarter in class.
So, that made me feel good. She was more impressed with my kid than she was with King David.
David first became a hometown hero when Bush appointed him the chief general of the Iraq war, and his national reputation soared. He had not always been thus regarded by the locals. As a matter of fact, when Cornwall Central High School decided to start recognizing its famous alumni back in the 90s, Petraeus was overlooked in the first round of honorees. Back then, the most famous grad was actor Armand Assante, who at the time was starring in a whole slew of made-for-TV movies. Among his many character roles were Odysseus and Jack the Ripper. But poor Armand soon faded from the limelight, going through a bankruptcy and foreclosure even as the Petraeus star rose higher and higher in the skies above Cornwall.
Ellen Kelly, his high school girlfriend, took over her daddy's real estate biz and sold a ton of overpriced houses just by bragging that she used to date David Petraeus. It was really getting weird in my little town. It seemed that Cornwall was morphing into Petraeusville.
Anyway, he certainly made a whole series of Hail the Conquering Hero visits back home in the past couple of years. When I read that he included a publicity stunt of himself visiting Miss Dempsey in the library, presenting her with four custom-upholstered Petraeus memorial chairs, I cackled inwardly. By this time, my kids had grown up and I'd moved further north. I resisted the temptation to join the thundering hordes of P-worshippers for these staged events. The townsfolk basked the glow of national attention, soaking up the second-hand Petraeusosity with each succeeding visit. This was definitely a man on a mission to establish some good old fashioned civilian political cred.
They even renamed a street after him last year. No, it was not the obvious choice -- Homeland Avenue! It was much, much worse. The town fathers took a stretch of Quaker Avenue, named after the town's historic early 18th century meeting house, and christened it David Petraeus Drive! What rich and nauseating irony. There is no word yet on whether they'll un-rename it, so as to finally stop the anti-war Society of Friends from turning in their graves, right next door. One of my old Cornwall neighbors, a Quaker activist who'd been arrested a few times for protesting the Stealth fighter and other military adventurous hardware at Stewart Airbase, was quite upset about the renaming. In tastelessness, it ranks right up there with awarding Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize.
Before the David Downfall, Paetriotic fervor had gone so far that some residents had even been calling for the removal of the plaque honoring Olympic speed skater Bonnie Blair from the town park, and replacing it with a Petraeus shrine. After all, Bonnie was only born in Cornwall and had left when she was two. When she came back to speak after winning her five gold medals, she admitted she didn't even remember the place. Still, I think her plaque may be safe now.
The Cornwallians are still apparently in a state of stunned disbelief over the scandal. There have been only terse announcements of his resignation in the local newspaper and online news sites. If they feel they have been the victims of a massive scam perpetrated upon them by David Petraeus, they're not saying.
Michael Hastings, one of the great journalists of our generation, has always had Petraeus pegged. He writes in Buzzfeed:
More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus’ entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth, on deception, on building a false image. “Perception” is key, he wrote in his 1987 Princeton dissertation: "What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred."
Yes, it’s not what actually happens that matters — it’s what you can convince the public it thinks happened.
Until this weekend, Petraeus had been incredibly successful in making the public think he was a man of great integrity and honor, among other things. Most of the stories written about him fall under what we hacks in the media like to call “a blow job." Vanity Fair. The New Yorker. The New York Times. The Washington Post. Time. Newsweek. In total, all the profiles, stage-managed and controlled by the Pentagon’s multimillion dollar public relations apparatus, built up an unrealistic and superhuman myth around the general that, in the end, did not do Petraeus or the public any favors. Ironically, despite all the media fellating, our esteemed and sex-obsessed press somehow missed the actual blow job.