Michael Carey: Four-star affairs? Where's Norman Mailer?

November 22, 2012 

The nation's columnists have exhausted themselves searching fiction for anecdotes and admonitions that will illuminate David Petraeus' affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

Not only have the writers rounded up the usual suspects -- Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles -- Richard Cohen of the Washington Post invoked gritty Chicago novelist Nelson Algren who said "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman who has more troubles than your own." (Algren was correcting Sophocles who warned don't sleep at Mom's.)

General Petraeus offered the American people a portrait of perfection. The elected officials, journalists, and officers who responded with disbelief when his affairs became public lacked the imagination to understand a fundamental rule of psychology -- nobody is the same person 24 hours a day. Fiction never makes this mistake. A playwright or a novelist can as easily imagine David Petraeus naked as in a uniform weighted-down by medals.

I suspect biographers fall in love with their subject all the time. It's fair to say James Boswell, the English language's first biographer, was intoxicated with Samuel Johnson. Boswell doted on the poet, essayist, and lexicographer's every word, and idealized Johnson's learning, erudition, wisdom and courage. Yet modern biographers of both men know Johnson hid much from not just from Boswell but the eyes of future biographers, burning hundreds of his letters in a frenzied conflagration before his death in 1784.

General Petraeus took his biographer to Afghanistan. Hard to believe in a democratic society. This seems more like Caesar. And why didn't Petraeus write his own story? Ulysses S. Grant did, and produced one of the great American autobiographies. Of course Grant was old and sick when he wrote, not on active duty, and he had a bit of tutelage from Mark Twain.

Norman Mailer, were he here, would be perfect to write the story of David and Paula, perhaps in a long, digressive Esquire essay like those he composed in his prime. For Mailer, who enjoyed exploring the kinks and contradictions of the military-industrial complex, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency succumbing to unauthorized desire would be an irresistible opportunity to explore the tormented psyche of American leaders torn between lust and body-numbing probity. Mailer actually believed President John Kennedy, whom he called the hipster in the White House, had the capacity to liberate Americans from the small-town Puritanism stifling their sexuality and driving them crazy.

For Mailer, speaking in Mailerese, Kennedy was "a man whose personality might suggest contradictions and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of the people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation...." For Mailer "the secret imagination of the people" was definitely sexual.

But sometimes people are far simpler than Mailer makes them. Maybe the story of David and Paula can be summarized by few words from songwriter Neil Young: "Better to burn out than to fade away." The world can be lonely place no matter how long your resume.

Michael Carey is an Anchorage Daily News columnist. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

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