Petraeus' downfall doesn't end heroism or ideals

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

This Feb. 2, 2012 file photo shows CIA Director David Petraeus testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington. Petraeus has resigned because of an extramarital affair. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Cliff Owen, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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It's been a tough few days.

While reports of marital infidelity and family breakdown are nothing new, public discussions of famous individuals' private struggles are always a bit troubling.

None more so than the recent discovery that CIA director and four-star general David Petraeus carried on an extra-marital affair with his biographer.

Having interviewed Petraeus when he was the commander of United States Central Command, I took the news hard and strangely personally.

Two years ago, Petraeus visited Brigham Young University at the request of an old West Point professor now in Utah. In advance of his visit, I spent weeks speaking with his colleagues, reading government manuals he authored and learning about his life, including how he'd been shot in the chest during a training exercise then proved he was ready to be discharged from the hospital by dropping to the floor and pounding out 50 pushups.

In a world filled with inflated, imaginary heroes, Petraeus seemed to be the real thing.

My brief interview that March afternoon in 2010 did nothing to change my mind. The general was professional and polite, and commanded attention in a way that was only partially related to the array of colored ribbons and gold stars on his jacket.

I left with a notebook full of nervously scribbled responses and a sense of awe. And I confess that I began to consider that brief interview one of the highlights of my journalistic career.

Years later, I planned to tell my boys about the time I met and interviewed the decorated general, polished academic and enviable athlete who over his career had become for many — including most recently me — a modern-day hero and the epitome of an honorable man.

Then, last week, Petraeus admitted to a devastating stumble — a fall from grace that has been both disheartening and instructive.

While I believe in forgiveness and the power of second chances, I mourn for the spouses and children on both sides who must now work through the pain of betrayal. I regret the departure of a qualified public servant and the unexpected end to his storied career. And I am saddened by the loss of a modern-day hero, who despite his many virtues and traits and perhaps even a flawless future, can never again be held in high regard in such a crucial category.

Yet the loss of a hero doesn't mean the end of heroism, nor does it mean the ideals that we valued in those heroes are unimportant or outdated.

On the contrary, this event has renewed my determination to teach my boys about the strength of virtue, the beauty of fidelity and the destruction of vice.

As they grow, I will still tell them about General Petraeus, only now the conversation will be tempered by time and the unflattering truth.

I imagine the conversation will bring up questions, not just about him, but also about mistakes in general. And I'll seize the opportunity to talk about power, loyalty, trust and forgiveness, and how all of us are imperfect and how we will all struggle.

I'll explain that rather than searching for the one, perfect example of a husband, father or leader, my boys should strive to mirror the noble traits of those around them, while wisely learning from, and hopefully avoiding, their mistakes.

And I'll remind them of the danger of building high pedestals for inherently imperfect people.

Sara Israelsen-Hartley is a Deseret News reporter. Email her at sisraelsen@desnews.com

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