It was 6:30 a.m. at the U.S. Military Academy, the sun was rising over the Hudson River, and Paula Broadwell was in athletic gear. With a half-dozen women, she rotated between sprints and burpees. Sweating onto the pavement, the group was perched atop an overlook called Trophy Point, in the shadow of a 46-foot battle monument memorializing those killed in the Civil War. There is a female statue in bronze at the top, arms outstretched regally, who is said to represent “fame.”
Broadwell was here in April for a 40th anniversary celebration for the academy’s first class of women, who enrolled two decades before she would graduate at the top of her class, with multiple varsity letters. It was also the first time she had been back to campus since 2012, when she achieved her own kind of unwanted fame.
Yes, this is that Paula Broadwell, the mentee-turned-biographer of David Petraeus; the West Point graduate and military intelligence officer who was revealed, through a high-profile FBI investigation, to have had a romantic relationship with Petraeus, a former CIA director and the highest-profile general from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is also the Paula Broadwell who would be publicly portrayed as a “homewrecker,” a “stalker,” a “temptress,” the woman who “brought down the director of the CIA.” And, perhaps with the most frequency, as the “mistress,” a word for which there is no male equivalent.
Her hometown newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, said it would work to retire the term “mistress,,” opting instead to call Broadwell and Petraeus “lovers.” “It takes two to have an affair,” said the newspaper’s editor, Rick Thames.
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As far as infidelity scandals go, this one had everything. He, with a doctorate from Princeton University, was the revered “thinking man’s general”: honorable, visionary, charismatic, credited with turning around the failing war effort in Iraq and doing more one-armed pushups than anyone his colleagues knew. “There was talk,” The Washington Post put it, “that, one day, King David would be president.” (Through his lawyer, David Kendall, Petraeus declined to comment for this article.)
She was the younger, equally ambitious overachiever: Olympic-distance triathlete; two master’s degrees; deputy director of the center on counterterrorism at Tufts University; a research associate at Harvard University, where she had first met the general six years before. “She was a standout,” said Sue Fulton, a former military captain and member of the first class of women at West Point, who later became a friend.
There was hubris: the man tasked with guarding the nation’s secrets revealing them; a woman who had achieved incredible journalistic access committing the ultimate journalistic sin. Another friend of the general, Jill Kelley, also became tangled up in the coverage after she reported to the FBI that she was getting harassing emails. Investigators later learned they were sent by Broadwell under a pseudonym. (Broadwell, now 43, declined to comment on the emails, other than to say that she regretted sending them; Kelley said the two have never spoken directly.)
The downfall was swift: Petraeus, now 63, resigned, apologized to the Senate Armed Services Committee and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material related to eight personal notebooks he had shared with Broadwell. For two months, he remained home in isolation – reading, communicating with friends and pedaling on his exercise bike. “One foot in front of the other, one day at a time,” Peter Mansoor, a military historian who was Petraeus’ right-hand man in Iraq, recalled Petraeus as saying. He was sentenced last April to two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine. Broadwell was never charged.
Nearly four years later, Petraeus is a partner in a New York private equity firm and has advised the White House on the war against the Islamic State group. He publishes op-ed articles, speaks publicly and has affiliations with three universities, including Harvard. He was recently listed among five former military leaders suggested by a Washington Post columnist whom Republicans might have considered drafting for president.
Paula Broadwell is emotional when she speaks about the Charlotte community that embraced her family. But she is torn: Should she try to reclaim her past – her dream of becoming a national security adviser – or should she pursue something entirely different? Should she fight to restore her military status, or simply move on?
“I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him in some senior role in the next administration, Democratic or Republican,” said Vernon Loeb, managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, with whom Broadwell wrote her biography of Petraeus.
Broadwell has struggled to find her footing. For weeks, reporters camped outside her home in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was trying to restore her marriage. Friends sent over groceries and hot meals for her family – her husband Scott and sons, 8 and 10 – and staged interference so Paula Broadwell could cut across her neighbors’ lawns, climbing over fences, to escape for a morning run.
She lost her military security clearance; her promotion from major to lieutenant colonel was revoked when the news broke. The FBI still has her computers – including her dissertation research – and she withdrew from her doctorate program. She said she was told in more than one job interview that, while she was qualified, hiring her would be a public-relations nightmare.
Four years on, her name still pops up in the news with regularity. She tracks these references with precision. She said that every time there is a new development – a legal update, Petraeus’ sentencing, the recently self-published memoir by the woman on the receiving end of her emails – she is reminded that for him, the affair is a footnote to an otherwise celebrated career. But for her – not as decorated, not as public, but still accomplished in her own right – it has become a lasting stain.
“I’m the first to admit I screwed up,” Broadwell said. “Really badly, I know that. But how long does a person pay for their mistake?”
That seems to be the question of the moment, in an age when one mistake can permanently cement your reputation. But the shame of the mistress is a particular category. Donna Rice, Monica Lewinsky, Rielle Hunter ... the names have come to represent a kind of archetype.
“That may be, in part, an unfair standard between men and women caught in an affair,” said David Bradley, the chairman of Atlantic Media who knew Petraeus and Broadwell and once sat down with Broadwell to offer professional advice. In the aftermath, he reached out to both by email to offer sympathy and support. “But, I think it’s equally the danger – the white-hot danger – for the private citizen caught in an affair with a public figure.”
Broadwell was not exactly an entirely private figure before, of course; it was just that what she was known for publicly was him. And so her fall seemed to elicit a particular brand of female schadenfreude: She seemed a little too eager, a little too ambitious, a little too self-promoting, enjoying the attention just a little too much. Yes, she would challenge Jon Stewart to a pushup competition – to raise money for wounded veterans – and win. She could also run a six-minute mile. “My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh no, they’re going to destroy her,'” said Fulton, who did not know Broadwell at the time but reached out after the affair became public to offer her support.
To journalists, she was the woman who – without any journalistic experience – had persuaded the highest commander in the land to give her unusual access and then abused it. (When the book came out, and she appeared on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Stewart joked that “the real controversy here is, is he awesome or incredibly awesome?”)
To military colleagues, she was guilty of “Hollywooding”: commanding the attention to herself in a culture that is all about the team. And then there was the infidelity, a crime for active duty officers for a reason. “Service members are required to deploy for months and months at a time – so you have to be able to trust your spouse,” Fulton said. It happens, of course, so often that there’s a name for it (“a zipper malfunction”). And yet “to violate that trust is viewed as particularly egregious.”
Paula Broadwell was pleased to discover last month, after conversations with The Associated Press, that it had addressed “mistress” in an updated style guide, advising “friend,” “companion” or “lover” in its place, or language that “reflects that it takes two to tango,” said the AP’s standards editor, Thomas Kent.
And so the public inquisition into the “mistress” began, with everything from her fitness acumen – could she really run a six-minute mile? – to her body fat (13 percent) to her “usually tight shirts and pants” scrutinized. She was called, by a senior military source, “a shameless self-promoting prom queen” who “got her claws” into him. She was “curvaceous,” with “expressive green eyes.” One general described her as “seemingly immune to the notion of modesty,” referring to the attire she was said to have worn in Afghanistan.
Petraeus, meanwhile, was described by former aides as “the consummate gentleman and family man.” He had “let his guard down,” The Washington Post said in a headline. Supporters said he had done the “honorable” thing by quitting. When he resigned, the president offered his prayers for the general and his wife; the Petraeus family, friends lamented in the media, would get through this.
First year was hell
And then there was the – in hindsight – unfortunate title of Broadwell’s book, “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.” There were porn parodies and a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a buttoned-up book event is actually a live reading of a steamy sex scene. There were rape and death threats, one sent in a handwritten letter to her home. Her Facebook page still vacillates between, “You ruined America!” and “Will you go out on a date with me?”
“I think the worst feeling is when you don’t have control over your life,” Broadwell said. She was sitting on the couch in her living room in Charlotte while her children were at school. “And that’s what this felt like.”
The first year was hell, she said. She and her husband, a radiologist with whom she is still together, went into counseling. She went into therapy. They explained to the children that “Mommy made a really big mistake.” She had panic attacks, lost weight and retreated from public view, hiring a team to manage the legal threat against her. Would she be tried for conspiracy to commit espionage? For cyberstalking? For something else? She was often reading about her legal status in the news.
Petraeus had many defenders – and a four-decade career of service to stand on. Broadwell did not. She said she never heard from her best friend – a crime agent with the FBI. She asked another friend, a woman she had mentored, if she would be willing to speak up on her behalf, but this woman was applying for a job with the CIA. “It was too controversial to even touch; certainly if you were active duty you would pay a price,” Fulton said.
There was the emotional toll of the abrupt severing of an intensely personal relationship. But there was also the professional one: her career tangled up with this man with whom she was once in love, her advocates, his allies. Petraeus had been helping her with her doctorate, at King’s College London, on military and organizational innovation. (His unit was one of the case studies.) They were working on another book together, this one focused on his leadership style, called “Relentless.”
Before the fallout, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina had sat her down in Burr’s office to discuss a future congressional run, she said. Suddenly, overnight, she became – in her word – “radioactive.” (A spokeswoman for Burr’s office confirmed that the meeting took place but said that he could not recall the precise nature of it.)
“She has such confidence, such presence in the way she carries herself, and she commands this attention,” said Rose Keravuori, a longtime friend and former West Point classmate. “I think people expected her to go into politics, or do something different. And then this happened, and just, nobody helped her up. It was hard to reconcile so many people being sort of gleeful in it.”
In March, Kelley, the Florida woman caught up in the Petraeus soap opera, self-published a book in which she printed dozens of her email exchanges with the general, as well as emails sent by Broadwell. It is called “Collateral Damage,” and in it she describes her own struggle to restore a damaged reputation, which led her and her husband to sue the government for invading their privacy (the suit was dropped in March).
The book landed Kelley on “Good Morning America” as well as a flurry of media attention while Broadwell was on a camping trip with her family in the mountains. She had spotty cellphone service but drove back down to call her lawyers.
A few days later, she was still nervously checking the Google alerts on her phone.
“You know, Petraeus, when we were working together, he would never read anything about himself,” she said, seated in the lobby of a Charlotte hotel. “Sometimes I wonder, am I doing myself mental harm by reading all of it.”
These days, her coping mechanism is to stay busy. She is on the board of multiple local leadership organizations, and she is a member of an opera club. She volunteers for a group that provides safe houses for human trafficking victims, another that helps veterans rehabilitate. She drops off her sons at the bus stop each day then goes for a morning run. She continues to push for women in combat and is active in a group called West Point Women, which planned the event at her alma mater.
She is emotional when she speaks about the Charlotte community that embraced her family. But she is torn: Should she try to reclaim her past – her dream of becoming a national security adviser – or should she pursue something entirely different? Should she fight to restore her military status, or simply move on?
“The truth is, the military is not a place where you can rehabilitate,” she said. “There’s a ‘Zero Defects’ policy – that’s military code. So the whole redemption thing? It’s not common.
“My husband says I just need to walk away,” she continued. “Sue Fulton says I needs to fight back. My lawyers – I literally ask them, ‘What would you tell me to do if I were your daughter?’ Some days I think, if I could just move on and it was never again in the news, I probably would. But I can’t. My fabric is to fight back.”
Fighting gender bias in media
With a friend, Kyleanne Hunter – a former Marine attack helicopter pilot – she has founded a nonprofit, Think Broader, focused on combating gender bias in the media. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sliver of bias that bothers her the most is “mistress.”
She recently presented on the topic to a roomful of editors at The Huffington Post, as well as to a team at Yahoo and the United Nations. She is working with a professor at Harvard to try to come up with a system for tracking biased language, she said – from unnecessary words (“female fighter pilot”) to journalists primarily relying on male sources to the subtle ways language can affect the way an article is framed.
She has also, quietly, reached out to female journalists she thought would be sympathetic, asking them to stop using the word “mistress”: Christiane Amanpour at CNN; Norah O’Donnell at CBS; Susan Glasser at Politico, who advised her staff to refrain from using the word.
“You know that character on ‘Game of Thrones,’ Tyrion?” she asked. “He says at one point, something to the effect of, ‘You’ve got to own your weakness, and then nobody can use it against you.’ Well, I’m trying to figure out how to do that.”
Broadwell was pleased to discover last month, after conversations with The Associated Press, that it had addressed “mistress” in an updated style guide, advising “friend,” “companion” or “lover” in its place, or language that “reflects that it takes two to tango,” said the AP’s standards editor, Thomas Kent.
After an article in The New York Times, about Petraeus’ plea deal, used the word to refer to her last year, Broadwell was in touch with the public editor at the time, who wrote a column about it, advising that The Times “hasten the departure” of the word. (It has appeared just several times in 2016.)
Her hometown newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, said it would work to retire the term, opting instead to call Broadwell and Petraeus “lovers.” “It takes two to have an affair,” said the newspaper’s editor, Rick Thames.
The campaign can feel a little like putting out brush fires, Broadwell said, but for now, it’s given her some sense of purpose.
“On the one hand, I don’t want to define myself by this,” she said. “But on the other hand, I’ve been defined by this. So if I can change things for the better because of it, then why not?”
Of course, she added, “Maybe some day I just need to take off the Google alerts and live in oblivion.”