Saving Dave Petraeus

In seeking redemption, regret is good; remorse is far better. Tiger Woods’ assertion that “Winning takes care of everything”, currently airing in his ad for Nike, is not just wrong; it will likely ensure that his widely reported private misconduct and public divorce will be the first thing the wider public thinks about when his name is mentioned.

Which brings us to the case of David Petraeus, the former four-star general who oversaw the Iraq and Afghan conflicts and who was tapped to run the CIA until news of his affair with his biographer, a young – and apparently jealous – married fellow West Point grad lit up headlines last November.

David H. Petraeus 2007 portrait

Petraeus was reported Wednesday to have apologized in the preamble of a speech to at the annual ROTC Dinner of the University of Southern California, with TV cameras present.  According to press reports, the speech had been scheduled before Petraeus’ affair came to public attention, so its likely Petraeus could not “ditch” the engagement over the story that roiled his career. Nevertheless, the speech was a tactical misstep in the public dance of redemption.  While the speech itself might have been unavoidable, every guest speaker has the right to restrict audio and video recording at a speaking venue. Petraeus’ handlers should have made the request and let his apology play out only in print or with interviews with attendees.

Clearly, the Petraeus speech was part of an orchestrated program to redeem Petraeus’ reputation.  The same day the Petraeus USC speech was reported,  an OpEd he co-authored appeared in the Wall Street Journal and, today, Petraeus’ effort to assist the family of a WWII OSS operative obtain his burial in Arlington National Cemetery is a feature story on the AP wire.

Its not clear what Petraeus objective might be.  There has long been talk of him entering electoral politics at some level.  But before he re-enters the public stage, Petraeus needs to clear up his public relations act.  So far, Petraeus PR has been beyond inept, its been awful; surprisingly so for a man who manipulated media with great skill in his days as a general.

Here’s what we would advise David Petraeus:

  • ·         Resolve any issue that may exist with your Bronze Star with Combat “V”.  At least one reporter has filed a FOIA request for the citation accompanying the award.  Americans will forgive marital infidelity, but exaggerated claims of combat valor are an entirely different matter.  If the citation was “puffed” by underlings to please the boss, public redemption might not be impossible, but it is far more difficult.


Holly Petraeus

  •         Involve your wife.  Her absence at the USC dinner was noted and reported and signaled that not all may yet be resolved on the home front.   If that is indeed the case, forget the rest of this and work, instead, on your marriage.  She doesn’t need to do the “stand by her man” violated spouse that so deeply embarassed Eliot Spitzer’s wife, but she should be seen with you,  the more often the better.
  • ·         Wait.  Your affair was real “National Enquirer” stuff that made Central Command seem like a military version of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the ‘60’s movie about wife-swapping.  Americans probably aren’t ready to move on from that rather tawdry story just yet. It was reckless and destructive and with American soldiers still in harm’s way, the country might not be too willing to forgive their former commander for extramarital dalliances, especially when your attempt at redemption is so patently obvious and ham-fisted as it has been.  A lot of Americans paid a far higher price than their reputation in the wars you led.  You may need to give them more time.
  • ·         Make one apology to a reporter who can ask the “why”, then stop.  The non-apology at USC was poorly conceived, poorly delivered, and set in the wrong venue.  You don’t apologize for “circumstances”; you apologize for behavior (yours.)  And you don’t apologize to a friendly (even sycophantic) audience of ROTC supporters who think you’re “Ike” on Earth.  You apologize to average Americans, whose trust you betrayed, via somebody like Scott Pelley of “60 Minutes”, who can do a background piece on your bio, briefly re-hash the scandal, and quickly pivot the interview over to areas where he’d like to break news, like Iraq and Afghanistan or cyberwarfare.  If that kind of “one-on-one” is too tough for you, then enjoy retirement on your Army pension, because your redemption will fail.
  • ·         Get to a base, fast.  By all accounts, you’re a brilliant administrator with great academic credentials. Heading a “name” non-profit  (e.g., American Red Cross, Ford Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations, etc.) would be great; heading an Ivy League or other “name” university would be even better.  Not only would such a position allow you a base from which to operate, but it would prove you can survive a public vetting for a venue that is neither military nor government.
  • ·         Depending on your plans, avoid the temptation to be a highly paid media “talking head”.  Its too much exposure and with the wrong people.  (Of course, if your only objective is to line your pockets, go right ahead.)
  • ·         Publish.  Memoirs might be okay, but strategy would be far better.  The United States is sitting on the precipice of wholly new forms of warfare with entirely new adversaries.  North Africa and the Middle East are more unsettled now than they have been in a century, and an increasingly belligerent China has committed to building a blue-water navy for the first time in its history.  Someone with your experience, credentials, and celebrity should be easily able to chart a course for American foreign policy strategy for the next 50 years.  So, let’s hear it.
  • ·         Talk to your (new) PR guys at least once a week for at least 30 minutes for at least the next six months.  Decide the “big stuff” where you should weigh in, the venues where you should speak, and the stories you should plant without attribution.  Choose your cases where you can engage in the kinds of low-profile, high reward missions that would enhance your reputation if success is achieved and where failure won’t attract much notice. It may be faint praise, but most Americans would likely have preferred you speaking to Kim Jung-on than Dennis Rodman.
  • ·         Reach out.  You enjoy a remarkably positive reputation on Capitol Hill with both parties, and I’m sure every governor of every state would take your call.  Ask for advice about your McCainAndPetreausnext steps.  You’ll be amazed the opportunities that will open for you. 

As a man of 60, with the vigor of someone 45, you have a long way to go and can do a lot with the years you have left.  Played well – or at least better than of late – you’re capable of making remarkable contributions and consigning your affair with Paula Broadwell to the same depth of historical footnotes as Bill Clinton assigned his affair with Monica Lewinsky (and since you’re not a partisan, it will be much easier.)  But you must engineer your public recovery much better than you have so far.

That brings us to our last point:  fire your PR team.


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