Does Paula Broadwell's Affair Tarnish Her as a Biographer?
- Andrew Marble
- November 19, 2012
Andrew Marble, who reviewed All In for the Independent and is himself a military biographer, investigates how the affair between General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell may have affected the book.
Should Paula Broadwell be sewing more than a scarlet “A” onto her wardrobe these days? Some believe so. They argue that by having had a sexual relationship with Gen. David Petraeus, the subject of her recent book, Broadwell has also broken a key commandment of the profession of biography: Thou shall remain objective.
As a biographer and reader of biographies, I am uncomfortable with this charge.
First, questions of opportunism aside, Broadwell, a high-octane overachiever, clearly felt an affinity for her subject well before their relationship transgressed into a sin of the flesh.
How could she not? The four-star Army general is a fellow West Point graduate, a fitness nut who shares Broadwell’s passion for push-ups and running six-minute miles, an intellectual who is also “all in” when discussing the military or national security issues, an ambitious careerist similarly known for pursuing and racking up awards and honors.
Little wonder that Broadwell, while on “The Daily Show” plugging her book, All In: The Education of David Petraeus, defended the general against his critics: “You want someone who is ambitious and driven and has a will to win,” she told John Stewart, “I think that’s exactly who you want in the type of leadership jobs he’s been in.” All In, then, is Broadwell’s bully pulpit, her chance to pontificate on how Petraeus’ qualities — and thus hers — are precisely the leadership skills the country needs.
Sex, then, was but a symptom of her closeness to the general.
Should a reader dismiss a biography written by an author enamored of her subject? My view is “not necessarily.” Just as I would not reject out of hand a biography written by an author who clearly finds his subject distasteful.
Consider The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s groundbreaking biography of Robert Moses. Caro had his own driving impulse behind writing the book. As an upstart reporter in the late 1960s, he became miffed that despite an exposé he wrote on a knuckle-brained plan to build a bridge from Connecticut to New York, construction had gone ahead anyway. How had the power of the press, he wondered, been subverted? Wanting to better understand political power, Caro would spend 10 years researching and writing the story of Moses. The resulting biography exposed how, within the framework of the world’s greatest democratic system, one unelected official amassed enough power to rule like a tyrant for decades over some of the biggest construction projects the world has ever seen.
A reader of The Power Broker might very well get the impression that Caro detests Moses as passionately as Broadwell fawns over Petraeus. But it is the author’s method — not motivation — that separates these two biographies into starkly different categories.
Caro did not simply offer his opinion of his subject. Instead, his thick tome was constructed on a foundation of painstaking and exhaustive data gathering, the chapters bristling with both precise explanation of events and careful quoting of sources. To find fault with Caro requires you to take issue with the clear, logical and, as most believe, convincing arguments that he constructed upon this firm empirical bedrock.
The proof of the pudding, as the British say, is here in the eating.
And Broadwell’s book? I came to All In with enthusiastic curiosity. The subject of my biography, John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also a four-star Army general. My research has uncovered evidence that his personality — being humble, giving credit to others, being a team player, showing empathy for others — directly aided his rise to the top. I was eager to read Broadwell’s take on Petraeus because I wanted to understand how a man who seemed the antithesis of Shalikashvili could also rise so high in the U.S. military. I wanted to better understand the interplay between personality and paths to career success.
To say I was disappointed is an understatement.
Broadwell’s book, which I indicated in my earlier review in The Independent, has many flaws. It tackles too many topics — the history of a great man’s intellectual development, his command of a major ongoing war and views of the war at the tactical level through different field-grade officers. This relatively slim biography fails to provide clear and compelling analysis or conclusions regarding any of the author’s research questions. Most troubling, it is unclear in many places whether a particular statement or perspective belongs to Broadwell, Petraeus himself or others. (Other reviews of the book offer even more vigorous and colorful criticism; see Michael Hasting’s take in Rolling Stone, for instance.)
Little wonder that Caro’s book won the Pulitzer Prize, while sales of Broadwell’s book quickly died down once the initial buzz was over.
The problem with Broadwell’s work is not that the book is a glowing portrait. Perhaps it does take an overachiever like Petraeus to tackle the thorniest problems of armed combat facing the United States today; perhaps, parenthetically, it also requires an overachieving biographer to understand this truth and put it into words.
Why Broadwell’s biography fails is because it is an unconvincing glowing portrait. There is no proof in the eating of the pudding. The real commandment Broadwell has transgressed is this one: Thou shall not be unconvincing.
There is a second crime that Broadwell is said to have committed: that of becoming a participant, not just an observer, in the life of the man she wrote about. Once their affair became public, Petraeus resigned his post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The biographer, some critics have charged, helped alter the course of her subject’s life.
Here too I’m inclined to be charitable. Biographers do seek to influence people’s lives. We do so mainly by shaping how our subjects are remembered. In some ways this gives us even more power than our subjects ever had to define the meaning or value of their own lives. Imagine if Caro had not written The Power Broker? Moses’ legacy would look quite different indeed.
I believe that by making herself part of Petraeus’ life story, Broadwell has unintentionally helped us better understand the man. What kind of person could cause a man like Petraeus — perhaps the most lionized combat general in post-Cold War history — to risk his reputation and incredible career? Months before the scandal broke, Broadwell told the Charlotte Observer: “Petraeus once joked I was his avatar.” In the context of this four-star general’s fall from grace, this one line perhaps provides an indelible image of who Petraeus actually is as a person.
That, after all, is the point of biography.
Andrew David Marble, Ph.D., is writing a biography of Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993-97. Dr. Marble can be reached through his website, www.shalibiography.com.