No, this headline is not meant to be ironic. Nor is it meant to call you back to a different moment in time when this four-star general was leading two wars for America. This headline is present tense—I mean to say General David Howell Petraeus, the recently and scandalously resigned Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is courageous today, right now.
Resigning one of the most powerful positions in the world (without being asked to), and then publicly citing an “extramarital affair” as the dominant reason, takes mettle. It’s the kind of courage we see very little of these days, in our carefully constructed world of personal brands.
Of course there are plenty of critics who, upon reading this, will suggest he was forced to resign. They will claim there must have been some deeper clandestine reason for Petraeus’ departure—he was the chief of the CIA, after all, it couldn’t be simply or only an affair. But let’s trust him for just a moment and imagine: What if he resigned because he knew it was the right thing to do?
It may be lost on us culturally to imagine someone subjecting himself to public humiliation merely because “it’s the right thing to do,” but that’s kind of old school if you ask me. And I like it.
Here’s how General Petraus put it in his resignation letter to the CIA:
“Yesterday afternoon, I went to the White House and asked the President to be allowed, for personal reasons, to resign from my position as [Director, CIA]. After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the President graciously accepted my resignation.”
That takes courage. Not only to acknowledge the affair, but to call it “unacceptable” and give it the gravitas as an act unbecoming of a public leader. It beckons me back to the old days—when right was right, wrong was wrong and when both sin and redemption were part of our common language.