I met General David Petraeus on a dusty, oppressively hot day outside of Baghdad in March 2003. Our forces had invaded Iraq and were swiftly closing on Saddam’s capital city. Hussein’s once vaunted army was collapsing, but there was sporadic resistance, snipers and so forth, and the oppressive heat remained a formidable enemy, making any physical activity, including war fighting arduous.
In its rapid advance, elements of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division had taken control of a suburban villa owned by one of Saddam’s cousins. The villa was abandoned and the swimming pool dry when the troopers secured the property for use as a command and control post in preparation for the big push into Baghdad.
Petraeus is the last officer I would ever suspect would get snagged in the classic honey trap
- Geraldo Rivera
The high ranking Hussein relative whose home had become our headquarters was long gone, but his fully fueled personal helicopter was still sitting in his backyard, where it had been quickly disabled by our invading forces.
Once the scene was secure, my brother Craig, producer/photographer Greg Hart and I asked the staff sergeant leading the platoon we accompanied where should we crash. He told us to take the master bedroom in the villa to avoid his troops squabbling over the relatively deluxe accommodations. We gratefully accepted, our disappointment that the water was not flowing more than overcome by our discovery that the Hussein owner had left his bedroom liquor cabinet fully stocked.
About a half hour after the property had been secured, General Petraeus arrived unannounced with a small coterie of officers. Although he had marched step for step with his troops over a hundred miles of bad road, Petraeus looked like he had just stepped off the parade ground at Fort Campbell.
With half a buzz on, Craig, Greg and I hustled out to form a ragged receiving line for the already hugely respected commander. As we stood by the dry swimming pool waiting for the general to reach us, he stopped short and looked at a disheveled, unshaven enlisted man whose uniform tunic was awry and coated with dust. He looked the trooper up and down and said something like ‘you look out of uniform, trooper.’ The dust-caked young soldier said something about having ‘marched across the desert’ and Petraeus replied quietly, but firmly something on the order of ‘I know, I’ve marched it too,’ and the kid said ‘yes sir,’ and excused himself to get cleaned up and organized.
Although I have since seen the general in action throughout Iraq and Afghanistan as he climbed the ranks from two-star to three to four, that moment with the unkempt trooper on that dusty afternoon outside Baghdad is the defining moment. This is a soldier’s soldier; a complete fighting machine whose modest physical packaging holds a warrior as complete as Eisenhower or Napoleon.
Jump-cut to the sordid scandal involving the biographer, bombshell Army reserve officer Paula Broadwell and her cat fight for the general’s attention with voluptuous Tampa socialite Jill Kelley.
To say I was shocked and stunned that the generals’ general had fallen prey to the same old, same old as the rest of us mortals is a profound understatement. The last time I was so utterly shocked and aghast was when I heard Princess Diana was dead in a car crash in Paris in 1998. Petraeus is the last officer I would ever suspect would get snagged in the classic honey trap.
He is the man, after all, who stood up the Iraqi Army so it could defend itself. He is the man who quelled the Sunni insurgency. He is the man who engineered the surge. He is the man who saved America’s collective ass in Iraq. He is the man many thought would be the ideal Republican candidate for president in 2012, way more macho than the former governor of Massachusetts. And after forsaking that opportunity to cash in his political chips, he is the man called on by President Obama to abandon the rewards of successful war-fighting to rush to Afghanistan, the graveyard of armies to save his nation’s interests once again.
Now he is exposed as an adulterer; a cheat; a lonely old man who like so many other men far from home succumbed to the charms of an attractive, ambitious, adoring, accomplished young woman. But it hasn’t changed my opinion of the basic man. His is an age-old personal tragedy with which General Petraeus and his wife Holly must grapple. But to those who suggest that this otherwise noble warrior would, as CIA Director, alter his sworn testimony about Benghazi because he feared the Obama administration would expose his affair, I say, you should have been there that hot, dusty day outside Baghdad in 2003. He didn’t lie. It didn’t happen. The various Benghazi-Gate investigations will expose our adventure in Libya as woefully under-funded and unprepared. It might show the Obama administration was willfully blind to the severity of Islamist hatred in the post-Gaddafi era. It might show that the administration sent out U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as a sacrificial lamb to spin public opinion to fit a desired narrative.
It will not show that this patriot lied to anyone but his spouse. Which is bad enough.
But as Rep. Michael Conway (R-Tx) a member of the House Intelligence Committee said about Friday’s hearing with the disgraced former CIA Director, “We are all sinners.”
Geraldo Rivera is currently host of "Geraldo at Large" on Fox News Channel (FNC), which is also nationally syndicated by Twentieth Television. Rivera recently celebrated 40 years in journalism.