Unfair blame game?

A file photo from July 13, 2011, of David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell.
A file photo from July 13, 2011, of David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell. AP

This story was originally published Dec. 2, 2012.

If you’ve been paying even slight attention, you know Paula Broadwell is a resident of Charlotte’s Dilworth neighborhood, a wife, mother, fitness fanatic and the woman who wrote a biography of and had an affair with Gen. David Petraeus.

But should she shoulder the majority of the blame for the destruction of a war hero’s career? And if she was his mistress, what was he to her?

In recent days, Broadwell has been described as crazed sender of menacing emails, home wrecker and the Petraeus seductress who, according to one senior military source, “got her claws - so to speak - into him.”

Now, national commentators, as well as family and friends, are speaking out against these portrayals. No one is condoning Broadwell’s actions, but they’re objecting to what they say are sexist stereotypes and double standards that lay most blame at her feet.

“It’s been difficult for me as someone who cares about her deeply to see the inaccurate picture that’s been painted by some of the press coverage, “ says Steve Kranz, Broadwell’s brother, who lives in Washington, D.C., and spoke with the Observer last week. “I really think this is two people who share equal responsibility for what happened.”

One friend of Broadwell’s, a Charlotte bank executive who asked not to be named, says what has bothered her most are references to Broadwell as wrecker of David and Holly Petraeus’ long marriage. “Nobody says David Petraeus screwed up the marriage of Scott Broadwell, “ Paula Broadwell’s husband. Petraeus “screwed up the marriage of a man and a woman who have two really young children. Petraeus messed up a family.”

The focus on Broadwell’s looks and clothing is also unfair, friend and neighbor Betsy Rosen says. “She’s a woman who operated in a man’s world at a very high level. But she didn’t look like a man, she didn’t act like a man. She used her strength and her brains to get where she was. It just so happens she’s good looking. And I think there’s a double standard there.”

Geoffrey Curme, another neighbor, says media coverage is weighted against Broadwell. “It seems like it’s sort of one-sided in terms of Paula being the devious, sneaky typical woman trying to get ahead, where you haven’t seen that critical of a view toward the general.”

Numerous opinion writers and columnists have reached the same conclusion. The Week, an online magazine, says the casting of Broadwell as femme fatale reveals enduring prejudices against women. Columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in The Washington Post last week that the double standard applied to men and women “is nothing new, but also nothing short of appalling.”

On Nov. 9, Petraeus, America’s most-decorated four-star general, resigned as CIA director after admitting an extramarital affair. Broadwell, who spent time with him in Afghanistan and Washington to research her book, emerged immediately as the other woman. In a statement, Petraeus has apologized for his actions. Broadwell has made no public statement, though Kranz, her brother, has said she accepts responsibility for her actions and is “incredibly sorry.” Broadwell has hired the Glover Park Group, a high-powered Washington public relations firm whose services include crisis management. The firm has begun working to reshape her image. For instance, Kranz has given the Observer photos that contrast with accounts describing Broadwell as wearing tight, inappropriate clothing while doing research in Afghanistan for “All In, “ her biography of Petraeus.

In two photos with Afghanis, she’s wearing modest outfits and a hijab, a scarf that covers her head and neck. In another, she’s wearing a black blazer while chatting with former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at a Harvard University event.

Equally shared blame

Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who’s friends with both Broadwell and Petraeus, says he was surprised by the affair, though “not totally stunned, in the sense that I certainly knew they had a very close friendship and there were probably infatuation aspects to it.” He recently wrote a column in The Baltimore Sun defending Broadwell’s character and concluding that his two friends share the blame.

Kranz, in an interview with the Observer, says she remains “extremely remorseful, “ not because of bad press, but “because she knows she’s done something wrong and she has caused pain to her family and people she cares about.”

“I’ve never seen my sister cry so much, “ he said.

Women often get blamed in sex scandals, says Kelly Finley, a lecturer in UNC Charlotte’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program, because society tends to perceive men as powerless to control themselves around attractive females.

Evangelist Pat Robertson recently made that very point about Petraeus: “The man’s off in a foreign land and he’s lonely and here’s a good-looking lady throwing herself at him. I mean, he’s a man.”

Finley doesn’t buy it. Petraeus was one of nation’s most powerful men. “I refuse to see him as a victim to any woman, “ she says. “It’s just frustrating me to see (society) treating him with such sympathy and not extending the same sympathy to her.”

Sexism in the language

Contributing to societal perceptions: the English language itself, which is replete with negative words for women with questionable sexual lifestyles - coquette, jezebel, concubine, spinster are a few of the nicer terms - but lacks similar words for men.

“Despite the progress of the feminist movement, this kind of systemic sexism is still in the language, “ says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist for The Boston Globe.

Zimmer wrote a column about the word “mistress, “ noting there’s no male equivalent. News accounts often refer to Broadwell as Petraeus’ mistress, though the term, which suggests a woman being kept financially, seems antiquated and inaccurate.

Many questions about the affair remain unanswered. An FBI investigation of classified documents found on Broadwell’s computer is ongoing. She is cooperating fully, her brother said. Also still unknown is the content of emails Broadwell sent to Jill Kelley of Tampa, Fla., that warned her to stay away from Petraeus and made Kelley fear for her safety.

Can she recover?

Some news outlets are speculating about whether Broadwell can recover from this scandal and successfully pursue career interests, which have included international policy and security, wounded warriors and women in the military.

The consensus so far: She’ll have a harder time than Petraeus.

“The overall track record shows it’s pretty hard on the younger person, “ says the Brookings Institution’s O’Hanlon. The man, who’s almost always older - such as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich - usually has significant career achievements to lean on.

One exception is Donna Rice Hughes, the University of South Carolina graduate who was just 29 and single when the media caught her in 1987 in a tryst with Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart.

Rice chose not to exploit the situation. She turned down big money to pose for Playboy. She left the public eye for seven years, got married and renewed her Christian faith. Eventually, she took a job with an anti-pornography group called Enough Is Enough. She’s now its president. She is an expert on Internet safety who often testifies before Congress. Broadwell hopes to resume her volunteer work with wounded warrior organizations, a source said. She has been active in Charlotte raising money for several wounded warrior groups. When she appeared on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” in January, she got a $20,000 donation from him after beating him in a pushup contest.

Charlotte’s Tommy Norman, a veteran, says he grew to admire Broadwell’s energy, drive and smarts by working with her through Charlotte Bridge Home, a nonprofit that connects returning veterans with community resources. “Here’s this great American who’s been enormously successful, “ he says. “I feel like she got an extra dose of the National Enquirer.”

Norman says he looks forward to working with her again. “I’m not going to let her go.”

For now, Broadwell’s concern is not with her professional rehabilitation, O’Hanlon says. “It’s with her family.”

Kranz agrees. His sister, he says, is focused on her children and her husband, Dr. Scott Broadwell, a radiologist. “I really think the two of them are committed to getting through this and working very hard to do that, and working hard to protect their two little boys.”

Kelley: 704-358-5271.