NOVEMBER 14, 2012
If you can somehow get past the shirtless G-man photos, the threatening emails, or the elaborate love triangles, then the most startling subplot in the Petraeus affair is the way Paula Broadwell insinuated herself into his world in the first place. As Broadwell herself has recalled, she met the general at a dinner for West Point alumni in 2006, then emailed him in 2008 while writing a paper on his theory of leadership. They took a run along the Potomac and stayed in touch, until one day she turned up in a war zone to write his biography. “I shot him an email, and said ‘I’m gonna to go for it,’” she told Jon Stewart in their now-famous interview. Before long, Petraeus had set her up with VIP housing at the NATO compound in Afghanistan and granted her total access.
The officers closest to Petraeus were stumped. Petraeus wasn’t just the Army’s most famous general. He was the military’s best-known and most accomplished intellectual. If he wanted an official biography, he could have had his pick of dozens of scholars and writers. “My gosh, if you are going to have someone interview everyone who has ever touched you in your life, choose someone who has written a biography or at least a history book,” Peter Mansoor, one of the general’s top aides, told The Washington Post.
Somehow the ultimate meritocrat had found a distinctly unqualified candidate to sum up his life’s work. And yet, in a way, Petraeus’s lapse wasn’t such a departure from his overachieving impulses and intellectual pretensions. In fact, it was arguably an outgrowth of them. The whole episode turns out to be a case study in how meritocracy can go off the rails.
This may be a good a time as any to remind ourselves that the term “meritocracy”—a bit like its cousin, “the best and the brightest”—wasn’t actually intended to be complimentary. It entered the lexicon through a book, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” by the British social thinker Michael Young, who imagined a dystopian world in which a small group of highly educated elites controls society. The meritocrats persuade themselves that, unlike the ruling classes that came before them, they are uniquely deserving of power because they earned it rather than inherited it. (And they have the SAT scores to prove it, by God!) And yet, over time, they somehow manage to become just as inbred, self-serving, and corrupt.
They story of how the meritocrats took over government and business has been told again and again. The story of how they took over the military is less well known, but just as consequential. As Fred Kaplan recounts in a fascinating Slate essay, the military’s great mental leap forward dates back to a George Marshall aide (and former Rhodes Scholar) named George A. Lincoln, who took it upon himself to up develop a new, high-powered breed of officer to lead the army in the postwar world. Lincoln set up shop at West Point, where he sought out promising young cadets, molded them into critical-thinking dynamos, and then deposited them into key positions in Washington and abroad. Over the decades, they became a kind of self-sustaining network—looking out for each other, hiring one another’s protégés, and generally congratulating themselves for being part of the club. Or, as they dubbed themselves, “The Lincoln Brigade.”
Kaplan points out that Petraeus, a Princeton PhD, is a product of this same network, having taught in the West Point department Lincoln built and having hired many of its alumni. But it’s probably fair to say he went beyond what even Lincoln imagined, cultivating his own Petraeus brigade—including a personal staff stocked with dozens of scholar-officers devoted to his brainiac virtues.
Like most meritocracies, Petraeus Inc. started off as a force for good. The brainy outsiders took over from flabby, self-satisfied insiders, making the world a little more just and a lot more efficient along the way. (By most accounts, the counterinsurgency manual Petraeus produced during the Iraq war was a major advance in military doctrine.) But, as Young predicted, the outsiders eventually became entitled insiders themselves. They filled their ranks with cronies. They resisted new ways of thinking and become overly susceptible to flattery. The Post describes how Petraeus welcomed the growing hoards of groupies who descended on his command posts, including conservative think-tankers from Washington, for whom he arranged office space and aircraft. Not for nothing did he earn the nickname “King David.”
Paula Broadwell, it turns out, was the kind of hanger-on whose arrival heralds a meritocracy in decline. Outwardly, she checked all the right sociological boxes: High school valedictorian, all-state basketball player, West Point alum, Harvard master’s degree. But, up close, she could be remarkably shallow. "There was no room for a conversation of shortcomings of the Petraeus theology. She wasn’t a reporter. She struck me as an acolyte,” a wonk who met her told the Post. “I was underwhelmed. It was surprising to me that she was his official biographer,” was how a former Petraeus aide described their discussions to the paper.
A friend of mine spent time with Broadwell in relatively intimate, seminar-type settings while she worked on her book, and had a similar reaction. When the seminar participants asked about her research on Petraeus, she fed them the kinds of platitudes she would later mouth on her publicity tour—“get the big ideas right,” “capture best practices and lessons learned,” etc. Though the questions were almost always innocuous, Broadwell would frequently become defensive and beg off. A typical response, according to my friend, was something like, “Whoa, I thought we were just having a friendly discussion here, not a debate.” (I emailed Broadwell to give her a chance to weigh in but didn’t hear back.)
What Broadwell excelled at instead was leveraging credentials to impress fellow achievers. She didn’t stop at her own. When my friend met her, she was fond of pointing out that her husband was no mere radiologist but a special breed known as an “interventional radiologist.” (She would draw out the word “interventional” for emphasis.) Later, she would boast about hanging out with the glitterati on the panel-discussion circuit—“Heading 2 @AspenInstitute 4 the Security Forum tomorrow! Panel (media & terrorism) followed by a 1v1 run with Lance Armstrong,” she recently tweeted, according to the Times. She was a kind of successful-person trophy collector who made no apologies for her ambitions. (My friend remembers the Facebook appeal in which she asked, “Can anyone introduce me to Lance Armstrong?”)
But her chief function was as a booster. The Petraeus book is, of course, almost embarrassingly admiring. As Jon Stewart put it in their interview, “[T]he real controversy here is, is he awesome or incredibly awesome?” My friend recalls that, whenever Broadwell fielded a question about military strategy or geopolitics during their seminar days, she would dutifully preface her comments with, “Let me tell you what General Petraeus would say,” or, “General Petraeus thinks...”
To Petraeus, long persuaded of his own brilliance and the righteousness of his cause, there would have been nothing especially suspicious about this. Paula Broadwell wasn’t some gate-crasher who descended inexplicably on Petraeus-land. She was a flatterer in a community of flatterers, a networker among networkers, a credentialist embedded with the credential-obsessed. She was, in the end, precisely the kind of courtier you’d expect to find when the king has been in power too long.