BERLIN - The resignation of David Petraeus as head of the CIA means that we can once again play that great political guessing game that measures the gap between what's being said and the real reasons behind what's happened.
It is apparent yet again that moving out of public office is almost as difficult as navigating the road leading in. Making mistakes on the way out can lead to dramatic loss of points in the history books. Whole generations of historians, for example, gave the German Empire’s first chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) bad marks for not having set systems in place to prepare for the day when he would no longer be in office.
And now: Petraeus. The ostensible reason for his resignation is an extra-marital affair. Even if, as she happens to be, the woman – Paula Broadwell – is 20 years younger than the 60-year-old general, this is not really a very convincing reason in a society in which serial monogamy has long been the standard for relations between the sexes.
Nor can Petraeus be seriously worried at the prospect of no longer being considered by the Republicans as a viable candidate for future president. Former U.S. President and intern-seducer-in-chief Bill Clinton has, after all, long been considered a great statesman, and his cheated-on spouse Hillary went on to become Secretary of State.
What’s surprising about the Petraeus case is not what happened but the fact that he used it as a reason for resigning. Time-honored standard formulas run along the lines of “personal reasons” or -- as Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, former German Defense Minister, accused of plagiarizing part of his doctoral thesis stated -- a “political sabbatical.”
If Petraeus had been looking at his resignation from a historical perspective he might even have been proud of his affair. There are Biblical references to virility in aging men as proof of their suitability for public office. Leaders like the King of Poland, Augustus II the Strong, and French King Louis XIV, all voracious womanizers, were adept as they grew older at using their reputation for having hyper-active sex lives to project a public image of power.
Leaders don’t resign
During most phases of the world’s history, there was usually only one reason for a political figure to leave office: death – more frequently on the battlefield or by an assassin’s hand than a peaceful passing. Roman Emperor Vespasian, who had fallen ill, is said to said on his deathbed: “I think I’m becoming a god” – perhaps he thought he was moving on to another job. Some leaders, like the Emperor Nero or Adolf Hitler, didn’t have much choice other than to commit suicide.
Emperors, just like Popes, don’t usually resign, although there have been some flamboyant examples such as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558), who retired to a monastery to live out his days in prayer. Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-311) was less religiously inclined, and voluntarily abdicated to go back home to tend his vegetable patch.
If Edward VIII's abdication in England was perceived as scandalous, it wasn’t just because he wanted to sleep with the several-times-divorced (and American) Mrs. Wallis Simpson: it was because he wanted to marry her too – a very different thing.
If extra-marital hijinks were a reason to end a political career in a democracy then the list of elected officials and their appointees would change faster than voters could get to the urns.
Which leads us back to David Petraeus and his public rationale for no longer wishing to be one of the world’s most powerful men. It is quite simply not to be believed.