Guest Host: Marc Fisher

The scandal engulfing former CIA Director David Petraeus and other military and intelligence officials follows a familiar story line: a powerful leader felled by an extramarital affair, with details straight out of a soap opera. But behind the usual discussions of judgment and ego lie less-examined attitudes about women. We explore the power, sexism and gender politics behind the headlines.


  • Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross


  • 12:32:13

    MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. The story of Gen. David Petraeus' fall from grace is all too familiar. An affair between a high-profiled married man and a younger woman ends his career. But beyond the soap opera details about the jealous mistress and the other, other woman, what is the storyline here? Is this another case of the powerful entitled man, the mistress of questionable virtue and the suffering loyal wife, or will Paula Broadwell emerge a successful star while Gen. Petraeus disappears in disgrace?

  • 12:32:46

    MR. MARC FISHERHas there been a shift in how we see the men and women involved in such scandals? Joining us to discuss this is Howard Ross. He is a diversity training consultant and founder of Cook Ross. He's the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." And you can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Let us know if you think the private lives of politicians should be fair game. Does the media treat men and women involved in such scandals differently?

  • 12:33:19

    MR. MARC FISHERAnd why do you think powerful leaders do get caught up in so many scandals? Let us know at 1-800-433-8850. And, Howard, I was reading a headline from my favorite newspaper, The Onion, and it said, "Nation Horrified to Learn About War in Afghanistan While Reading up on Politician's Sex Scandal." And so, you know, one thing we can probably all agree on is that the interest in such scandals is a constant.

  • 12:33:49

    MR. HOWARD ROSSWell, there's no question, Marc. And, you know, we're such an interesting culture around this issue because, on one level, we've got such a, you know, presence of sexuality in our culture in every different way. And, you know, we could go on and on about, you know, pornography in the Internet and all this kind of stuff. And then, on the other hand, we're so prudish about it and reactive to it.

  • 12:34:08

    MR. HOWARD ROSSAnd I was with somebody just a couple of evenings ago, and she was saying that she was watching the initial stories come in with a new au pair they had who is French. And this young woman apparently didn't understand all of the language. So they were sort of helping her understand what was going on, and they described that this scandal had happened. And then, with startling surprise, she said, you mean, he's going to lose his job because of this, you know, because of something personal?

  • 12:34:35

    FISHERMm hmm. Mm hmm.

  • 12:34:36

    ROSSI mean, it's such a very different content.

  • 12:34:36

    FISHERIt's a foreign concept to people from other countries.

  • 12:34:38

    ROSSVery -- exactly. Exactly right.

  • 12:34:40

    FISHERAnd so what -- as we see this scandal as they often do, just expanding enormously every day, more revelations almost by the hour, what do you think it is that we have not yet heard? What's missing from this story?

  • 12:34:57

    ROSSWell, as always, for me, the subtext is always much more interesting than what we see on the surface. You know, there are two people that had a relationship. Who knows what happens? But I think that the subtext here that's very interesting is in the context of what you said in the intro which is the various ways that we see this as a gender dynamic. There's the one way which we tend to see is -- and that is that women in these kinds of situations end up being the Hester Prynne.

  • 12:35:21

    ROSSThey had to be the one who's labeled with this. Whereas even as we think back 170 years ago to "The Scarlet Letter," almost nobody even remembers Arthur Dimmesdale, the guy who impregnated Hester Prynne. And so -- and I think that that's true publicly, too. You know, we look at President Clinton with all of his popularity now. And then there's Monica Lewinsky who, you know, people see as this sort of, you know, lost woman or whatever.

  • 12:35:43

    FISHERAnd she's never been able to hold a job. She's...

  • 12:35:44

    ROSSNever been able to hold a job. And even people's sense of her, you know, we were -- I was talking about this with somebody just yesterday. And I was saying, you know, here's a young woman who graduated from the London School of Economics with a master's degree. She got -- you know, she became a White House intern, which is highly competitive. Obviously, she had something going for her. And yet the only thing she could be remembered for is this. And she's one of a long line of women we see sort of discarded by history in that way.

  • 12:36:07

    FISHERWell -- but isn't that changing? In other words, obviously, Bill Clinton has made a full and complete comeback in the -- probably the most respected former president we have, one of the most popular. But on the other hand, you have people -- politicians such as Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, who seemed -- their political careers really seemed to be at a dead end as a result of those kinds of scandals.

  • 12:36:31

    ROSSWell, to some degree, Eliot Spitzer went right to a TV news show which...

  • 12:36:35

    FISHERWhich flopped.

  • 12:36:35

    ROSS...which flopped perhaps. But, nonetheless, he at least got the chance to do that. David Vitter is still, you know, still serving as a politician. I think you're right. I'm not saying that it's a 100 percent that way, but clearly we have this particular sense of it. And I think that there's another issue as well which is that were beginning to get a deeper sense of understanding from some of the psychological research that's being done about where these dynamics occur.

  • 12:36:57

    ROSSAnd we tend to see them as gender dynamics because so often, of course, it's the man who is the public figure and the woman who's the other woman in these kinds of circumstances. But it appears in the psychological research that this is much more a function of power than it is gender. There's some research that was done at Florida State University and also at Tilburg University, for example, where they created studies.

  • 12:37:18

    ROSSThey gave men and women, in experimental situations, a sense that they had more power than another person, usually by telling them that they were getting a certain amount of money versus what the other person was getting. Then almost immediately, they became more flirtatious. They began to see themselves as more attractive in their own description of themselves, and they perceived more of their partner's behavior as being sexual.

  • 12:37:42

    ROSSAnd when they studied what was actually going on the brain, what they found was that at times when we feel powerful, our sense of orientation is more towards reward than risk. When we feel less powerful, we're more oriented towards risk. And so, often, we ask ourselves the question, when you look at what's going on with Petraeus, for example, how could he not know he was going to get caught?

  • 12:38:02

    ROSSAnd the reason that this happened, it appears, is because the center of our brain that worries about getting caught gets dulled, and the center of our brain that worries about the rewards gets pulled in. Now...

  • 12:38:12

    FISHERAs there seemed -- and so someone in power is more likely to think of himself or herself as attractive and alluring, but it's also true, I would think, that from the outside perspective, people in power are more attractive and alluring to others. And, I mean, there's been all sorts of mean humor on the Internet of late about Mrs. Petraeus and her attractiveness. But on the other hand, you have a number of women saying, well, David Petraeus is nothing special either except for the work that he did.

  • 12:38:47

    ROSSRight. Well, of course, we have a tendency in our culture, in any case, to evaluate women more for their appearance than we do for men. I mean, you know, how many times was Henry Kissinger, for example, evaluated based on his hairstyle versus Hillary Clinton? I think that happens as well. I think there's one other piece to this which is,, you know, people might say, well, if this is the case, why aren't more women in power showing, you know, demonstrating this behavior?

  • 12:39:10

    ROSSWe have to remember that, first of all, women hold less power positions. Secondly, when they do hold power positions, they're generally in male-dominant organizations, businesses or in politics which are generally male-dominant. And so even though their personal power position may be significant, they're in the context of a non-dominant group in that power position. And also, they're more likely to be socially stigmatized for the behavior. And, therefore, they're likely to be more careful about it.

  • 12:39:34

    FISHERWe're talking to Howard Ross about the David Petraeus scandal and the politics of power and sex in that scandal. You're calls are welcome at 1-800-433-8850. And here's Jean in Washington. Jean, you're on the air.

  • 12:39:48

    JEANOh, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was -- it occurred to me, as I was listening to the coverage of this, just how tragic it has to be for the wives in this situation because they -- not only have the wives and the children paid a very high price for the -- someone of this stature being successful and all of the demands, but yet when something like this happens and this fall from race, presumably fall from economic status over something that his wife had no control over whatsoever -- and I don't know, it just occurred to me this morning as I was listening to this how tragic is for the wives in this situation.

  • 12:40:29

    FISHERThanks, Jean. Howard.

  • 12:40:31

    ROSSYeah. There's no question that that's true although we are seeing a different trend here where the spousal relationship is concerned. And that is, you know, historically we've always had this sort of stand-by-your-man expectation that the wife would stand uncomfortably at the press conference where the person took the bullet and, you know, acknowledged their sins and the like.

  • 12:40:49

    ROSSAnd we see less and less of that happening. Huma Abedin was rather notably absent when Weiner did his press conference. The same is true in this circumstance. And I think that they were beginning to see a separation where that's concerned, where people do allow the perpetrator, so to speak, to take the bullet by themselves, and there's not a strong of an expectation for the wife to be out there even though they are certainly seen in the background.

  • 12:41:15

    FISHERAnd the role of Holly Petraeus is actually an interesting one because she is obviously well-respected in her field, but her field revolves around her identity as a military spouse. That's the work that she does.

  • 12:41:27

    ROSSYes, that's true.

  • 12:41:28

    FISHERSo why is it that -- I mean, do you think that we are seeing a shift in how the other woman is perceived? You know, obviously we had the example of Monica Lewinsky, who seems rather having a hard time coming back from that scandal. Rielle Hunter, who is John Edwards' mistress, remains a target for comedians. But on the other hand, you have someone like Donna Hughes, who was involved with Gary Hart, who came back from that liaison to run a very well-respected anti-pornography nonprofit. Is there the beginning of a shift in which the other woman is not seen as somehow morally tainted?

  • 12:42:10

    ROSSWell, I think that, you know, Donna Rice Hughes is probably the exception to the rule in that regard. I can't think of anybody else who's seen in that stature except perhaps people who have gone ahead to marry that particular person or become a, for example...

  • 12:42:26

    FISHERSuzy Wetlaufer.

  • 12:42:27

    ROSS...Suzanne Wetlaufer, who had the affair with Jack Welch, and they went in to get -- went on to get married and have written books together since then. So I think that there are those cases. But they're very few cases. I can't think of anybody else besides Donna Rice Hughes who went on to create her own established independent career based on that. Whereas, of course, more cases than not, men do redeem themselves to some level and go ahead and remain to be public figures of some we know.

  • 12:42:53

    FISHERYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." When we come back after a short break, we'll talk about a study showing that women are equally likely to be adulterous as men are. That's coming up after a break. I'm Marc Fisher. Stay with us.

  • 12:45:06

    FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about sex and politics and sexism in the Gen. David Petraeus case with Howard Ross. He's the founder of Cook Ross. He's a diversity training consultant and the author of a book called "Reinventing Diversity."

  • 12:45:24

    FISHERAnd there's a study by Helen Fisher, noted anthropologist at Rutgers University, saying that women are equally likely to be adulterous as men, at least up to the age of 40. So why aren't they singled out for scandal as prominent men are, or why don't we see more scandals if the same amount of scandalous behavior is occurring?

  • 12:45:44

    ROSSWell, it may be that the same amount of scandalous behavior in the general population is occurring in that range. And, you know, I am familiar with that study, and there are several others that show the same thing. But as I was saying before, that doesn't mean that it translates into the prominence of women. First of all, there aren't as many prominent women in those kinds of positions, and so that's obviously self-selecting.

  • 12:46:03

    ROSSAnd then as I said before, when they are, they're often in circumstances for different reasons. I mean, there are some studies that show -- I believe that one of the things that Helen Fisher also talked about in her study was that they found that women tend to run for office, for example, for very different reasons, that women who run for office tend to run for office to do something, whereas men who run for office tend to run -- often run for office to be somebody. And that's a very different sense of an ego structure.

  • 12:46:29

    ROSSYou know, I'm there to accomplish something, and my focus on what I want to accomplish are more likely to be able to push things that are distractions to that out of the way. When I'm there to be somebody, when I'm caught up in the ego issues of, you know, being now the senator or the congressman, the general or whatever it is, the very nature of the way I'm oriented, in terms of my own perception of myself, is the part of us that also likes to find other people attracted to us in response to that. So it's pretty complex.

  • 12:46:58

    FISHERHere's Mary Jo in Oakton. Mary Jo, you're on the air.

  • 12:47:01

    MARY JOHi. I'd just like to say part of the problem with Petraeus has nothing to do with my being a prude, feeling sorry for his wife. He has a security clearance. My husband had security clearances. He couldn't do anything that would not have lost him his security clearance. At this point, this man is privy to every secret we have in the highest places. He has opened himself up to blackmail.

  • 12:47:26

    MARY JOThat is the problem -- not his sex life, but the openness he had for that kind of person to blackmail him for anything, for any reason whether it's the publisher, somebody else he knows. That's the problem, not his sex life. Thank you.

  • 12:47:42

    FISHERThanks to the call. I mean, that's obviously was -- seems to be the concern that the FBI had in delving into this in the first place.

  • 12:47:48

    ROSSYeah, I think that it's -- I think Mary Jo's right to some degree, and the other is also true. I don't think it's one or the other. I think it's actually both. And I think where Gen. Petraeus is concerned, as he added -- the added, you know, piece that he sort of was created both in terms of his own management of his personality and presence as well as other people's as this paragon of honor and duty and all of these things.

  • 12:48:12

    ROSSAnd so he's also left comparing his behavior to his own standard. And had he been seen as somewhat of a, you know, loser kind of character, it may have been perceived a little differently like wink, wink, nod, nod. Well, what do you expect?

  • 12:48:25

    FISHERRight, like Bill Clinton, but I wonder if there is a correlation between improper behavior and those who most vociferously rail against improper behavior and for a moral, you know, present themselves as extremely moral.

  • 12:48:43

    ROSSWell, of course, we've seen this for years with people who get into same-sex relationships. We've seen it often. It's the person who was the anti-gay congressman, for example, who is found to have the relationship with the, you know, page or whatever it is.

  • 12:48:57

    ROSSAnd, once again, from a psychological standpoint, this is a phenomenon that sometimes has been called the disowned self, the part of our self that struggles with our identity -- either seeing ourselves in relationship with women or sexual behavior -- and then fights with that inner self to keep it under control, sometimes externalizes that when we see it outside of ourselves. So the very behavior that we struggle with internally is the behavior we cast to get other people for.

  • 12:49:21

    ROSSAnd then when we slip into it, this is what happens. So you look at somebody like Eliot Spitzer, for example, who's got this sort of strong reformer personality, not so much against where sexuality was concerned but, you know, fighting the Wall Street, all these kinds of things that he did and then turns around to, you know, be hiring an escort, which is illegal behavior. It's not all that uncommon for that to happen.

  • 12:49:43

    FISHERAnd particularly in the intelligence and military settings where there is a very strong code of behavior, code of honor, there is an expectation that leaders will live up to an especially high standard. There is an interesting piece on this morning by Alison Buckholtz looking at what military spouses are saying about the Petraeus affair.

  • 12:50:06

    FISHERAnd she says that most military spouses she's heard from in the last week say plainly that marriage is hard regardless of the circumstances, but that the military environment seems to exacerbate the normal tensions that any couple might face, whether they involve money, raising the kids or extracurricular sexual activities. And so there is this culture of the military that creates a set of expectations and a greater sense of betrayal when something like this happens.

  • 12:50:33

    ROSSWell, there's no question. I mean, if you think about what a military spouse has to put up with, you know, you may lose contact with your loved one, not see them. Now, of course, it's very different today than it was many years ago in the sense that often from -- right from a war zone, people could be Skyping their family members. And, of course, here's -- I have a box of letters that my mom saved from when my dad was away in World War II for 3 1/2 years. They never saw each other, but he wrote to her practically every day.

  • 12:50:58

    ROSSAnd so I have this huge box of letters from that. That was the only contact they had. Nowadays, of course, they're seeing each other. But, nonetheless, you know, your family gets moved repeatedly, potentially. You're away from your spouse. You have to operate in this very constricted environment with lots of rules. You have to be careful not to be yourself if it's outside of that environment. And so when I give in all of that to this relationship and sacrifice all I've had to sacrifice and then my partner does something like this, it is a particular betrayal.

  • 12:51:26

    FISHERHere is Mosa (sp?) in Springfield. Mosa, you're on the air.

  • 12:51:29

    MOSAYeah. This is Mosa. I don't see any reason why we're trying to decry these guys down. He has done a lot for this country. So instead of criticizing him as if he's non-entity, it's a time that we try to console him and talk to him and see what we can do to help him out. Also, in the military, you send people out there all from their wives, and then you keep them there for a year or two. These people have to adhere to biological tendencies in their body.

  • 12:52:03

    FISHERThey have needs.

  • 12:52:04

    MOSAYeah. They are to adhere to biological tendencies in their bodies. You can take the man from the forest, but you can't take the forest from the man. So he will think that way. And the lady too stays out there walking with people all over the place. Some people are caught. I mean, that happened to David. That happened to something and the rest of them. We know this.

  • 12:52:27

    MOSAI mean, my own solution to (unintelligible) those powerful people is that when they go, find time for their wife to go and meet them. Find time for their wife to go and meet them. If it is the woman, find time for the husband to go and meet them there, or they come home to meet their wife (unintelligible)...

  • 12:52:43


  • 12:52:44

    MOSA...every six months. Don't keep them away from their wife or their husband for a year or two. They are -- they must adhere to nature, period.

  • 12:52:52

    FISHEROK. Thank you, Mosa. Is -- should -- so should the Pentagon start massive flights to and from bases around the world for conjugal visits?

  • 12:53:00

    ROSSWell, that's -- you know, whether they do that or not, I don't want to go -- I want to respond more importantly to the mindset that we're talking about here. And you can hear a little bit of what Mosa's saying. The mindset, it is out there. It's sort of -- you know, and here is where I think the notion of sexism or misogyny comes into play. And that is there is this sort of mindset for a lot people, well, boys will be boys. And it's not the right thing to do, but you know boys will be boys, whereas, when it's a woman, it's a very different mindset.

  • 12:53:25

    ROSSThis is where the Hester Prynne thing, "The Scarlet Letter" comes in. You know, it's not girls will be girls. It's the relationship between -- in our culture between sexuality for men and women is quite different. And so a woman behaving in this way is simply seen more generally by our culture as more sinful than a man behaving in this way. It's not that the act is different, but the perception and the reaction to the act might be different.

  • 12:53:45

    FISHERThat seems to be the perception the way that the other woman is treated in the sort of standard storyline. But when the woman -- when the scandal revolves around the woman, do we see the same dynamic at work, or are these people in power protected by their power regardless of their sex? In other words, is either, for reasons of equity or because society is more protective of women, do women who are at the center of a scandal have basically the same opportunity to come back from it that a Bill Clinton or an Eliot Spitzer might?

  • 12:54:22

    ROSSWell, we've had such few opportunities to gauge that. I mean, Nikki Haley was accused of behavior, but it was never acknowledged, never -- you know, it was never proven or acknowledged. And she simply...

  • 12:54:30

    FISHERThe South Carolina governor.

  • 12:54:31

    ROSSExactly. The governor of South Carolina. And so it was simply denied. So we don't have any sense of whether or not that's true or not. And it will be interesting to see, you know, when circumstances like that occur, whether or not, in fact, that's the case.

  • 12:54:44

    FISHERJohn in Germantown has an additional point on the question of this being a military case. John.

  • 12:54:50

    JOHNWell, right now, I'm not sure of whether it is because Petraeus is retired. However, active duty military can be adjudicated under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for adultery. It's against the law, unlike in a civilian setting. Now, whether or not he was active duty at the time when the actions took place, I don't know, but that point needs to be brought out that it's, in fact, against the law in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

  • 12:55:17

    FISHERWell, it's also technically against the law for anybody. I mean, it's just that there are laws that are enforced and laws that aren't enforced.

  • 12:55:25

    ROSSYeah. I think that the bigger -- that's true. There's no question that that is the case. Although what I've been reading is that they say that there's no -- there doesn't appear to be any reason to adjudicate for that reason along those lines, although the breach of security may end up being that. And I do think, as Mary Jo said earlier, the breach of security in this case, or the potential breach of security, is one of the issues that makes this particularly interesting.

  • 12:55:48

    FISHERThere have -- we've seen so many of these sex scandals involving public figures over the years. Do you see any trend there? Is there an increasing level of tolerance in the public for men who -- or women who end up in these circumstances? I mean, there are lots and lots of calls in the press certainly for people to say, you know, let the guy serve, move on. It doesn't affect the way he does his job. Is that gaining any traction, that point of view?

  • 12:56:16

    ROSSWell, I think we see two corresponding trends. There is one trend which is that public figures are more public all the time. You know, all the stories about John Kennedy and, you know, his bevy of women apparently who -- and when you read some of the biographers around that, biographies of Kennedy, what they say is basically, it was sort of excused as he needs this to relieve his stress. That was sort of -- but nobody talked about it.

  • 12:56:37

    ROSSThere was an agreement -- a silent agreement with the press. It was just known but not talked about. Now, of course, it's always talked about, and it's seen within minutes. As we saw with Petraeus, it's all over the place. We also have a trend more towards an acceptance of the fact that families break up, more often divorce, different affairs and relationships. And so these things sort of come together. It's a reordering of our cultural memes around this.

  • 12:56:58

    FISHERLet's squeeze in one last call from Linda in Alexandria. Linda, you're on the air.

  • 12:57:01

    LINDAOh, hi. Yes. Thank you. I just wanted to make a brief comment in regards to this very heated topic. And I'm a military spouse with a high-ranking officer and had personal experience with this. My husband had an extramarital affair, and, for the past five years, we've been trying to get her out of our lives.

  • 12:57:15

    LINDAAnd speaking to the gentleman that called earlier, that the boys will be boys, obviously, I don't agree with that. You know, I believe that there's a direct correlation with -- specifically officers -- high-ranking officers, when they're in a situation -- or they're making decisions at work that directly affect the home front. So I just wanted to get that out there...

  • 12:57:37


  • 12:57:37

    LINDA...that this is a huge topic, and this is very prevalent in high-ranking -- I don't know (unintelligible) as well. But I just -- I think it's more prevalent in people, you know, like...

  • 12:57:45

    FISHERWell, thank you, Linda. We're almost out of time. Howard, a quick comment.

  • 12:57:48

    ROSSLook, there's no question that, you know, ultimately our success in life, how healthy we live our life is based on how much we can resist temptation to do things that we know that we shouldn't do, and this is no different than that.

  • 12:57:58

    FISHERHoward Ross is a diversity training consultant and founder of Cook Ross. He's the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." Thank you very much for being here.

  • 12:58:11

    ROSSA pleasure.

  • 12:58:11

    FISHERI'm Marc Fisher, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks very much for listening. We'll be back on Monday, by the way. Tom Ricks will be on the air and will explore this military connection of the Petraeus case a bit more then. Please join us.

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