In a way, I'm glad that David Petraeus's sex scandal is playing out across the pages and television screens of the mass media. Because one of the alternative ways it could have been handled is so much worse.
Now, I'm not normally a prude when it comes to sex scandals. In fact, I believe that America is still struggling to escape its own Puritan past, even after centuries. Politicians and high-ranking government officials in other countries treat mistresses and other sexual peccadilloes differently. If politicians and the public really don't care who is sleeping with whom, then there's no scandal and no possible means of blackmail -- which is the real heart of the problem, in many ways.
Spies have long set "honey traps" for government officials of their opponents. There's a reason for this -- the threat of being exposed is so great that it is used as a lever to force someone caught by such a trap into betraying their own country (to save themselves major embarrassment). The head of the Central Intelligence Agency would have been a prime target for such action by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, for obvious reasons.
Petraeus' scandal, however, apparently does not involve foreign players. It is an entirely American scandal. Both Petraeus and his mistress graduated from West Point. That's about as all-American as you can get, in the scandal department.
Which has led to the expected tut-tutting from some about how a sexual affair really shouldn't matter all that much, that Petraeus maybe shouldn't have had to resign, and that the media is making too much of the whole thing. Perhaps, some say, it should have all been handled more privately.
This is wrong, for historic reasons. The agency that uncovered the affair is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Their headquarters is named for the man who led the agency for an astounding 48 years. Which is an absolute disgrace, in my opinion, because J. Edgar Hoover was the biggest blackmailer the United States has ever known -- and much of the leverage he exploited was due to information he possessed about sexual dalliances of high-ranking officials in the United States government.
Just for one minute, imagine that Hoover was still in control of the F.B.I. He obtains information that the head of the C.I.A. has a girlfriend. What does he do? Does he report this to Congress and the White House and hold a press conference? Does he use the information to get the C.I.A. chief to step down? No, he does not. Hoover would have called Petraeus in privately, shown him the evidence, and from that point on, the C.I.A. would essentially have been a subsidiary of Hoover's F.B.I.
This is why I started by saying Petraeus's public exposure was a good thing, when compared to the historical alternative. Yes, such things can happen here in the U.S.A. -- and did, for almost half a century. Harry S Truman wrote in 1945 that "We want no Gestapo or Secret Police. FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex life scandals and plain blackmail when they should be catching criminals." This is no conspiracy theorist, this is the President of the United States speaking.
J. Edgar Hoover, famously, "had a file on everyone." That was his power. His file on Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he detested, ran to at least 449 pages (what remains of it). Hoover catalogued the sex secrets of congressmen, senators, judges, military personnel, presidents, Supreme Court justices, celebrities, journalists, dissent groups he didn't approve of, and anyone else he could get dirt on. And then he used this information to get the rest of the government to do what he wished. In a word, blackmail.
As a result, the F.B.I. had no worries when budget time rolled around on Capitol Hill. Their requests were granted almost automatically, since so many of the people voting had already been compromised. During Hoover's time in office, from 1924 to 1971, Congress didn't hold a single hearing on the F.B.I. budget, to put this another way. Politicians soon realized that by taking Hoover's side, they could actually benefit from information about their political opponents -- which every president from F.D.R. to Nixon did. Wiretaps and surveillance against the opposition wasn't invented in the Watergate hotel; in fact Watergate was an amateurish effort from the White House to duplicate what had already been professionally handled by the F.B.I. for decades. It wasn't just presidents, either. Hoover's assistant director William Sullivan admitted "We were the ones who made the [Senator Joe] McCarthy hearings possible. We fed McCarthy all the material he was using. I knew what we were doing. I worked on it myself. At the same time, we were telling the public we had nothing to do with it."
Of course, in such a world of blackmail, there's always a chance of being hoist on your own petard. J. Edgar Hoover was likely not a cross-dresser, as these stories came from a single source and were so outlandish as to be unbelievable. But Hoover's files were full of homosexuals, which was a big part of the McCarthy accusations as well. No actual proof of a gay relationship between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (the number-two man at the F.B.I. during Hoover's tenure) has ever been made public -- but that doesn't mean such proof didn't exist. Rumors persist that both the Mafia and the C.I.A. had compromising photographs of Tolson and Hoover as early as the 1950s. It is an undeniable fact that Hoover's F.B.I. turned an astonishingly blind eye to organized crime during his last three or four decades in power.
So who knows how such a blackmail war would have played out today, even if J. Edgar Hoover were still around? If Hoover had dirt on the head of the C.I.A., but the C.I.A. had equally-scandalous photos of Hoover, perhaps there would have been a stalemate of sorts. It's sheer speculation, either way.
So while I cannot say whether David Petraeus should have been forced to step down or not over an affair with a married woman, the one thing I can say with certainty is that I'm glad the F.B.I. did break the story publicly and that we're all hearing about the salacious details in the media right now. Because the alternative is a really frightening one, where evidence of such sexual misbehavior would be used as leverage by the head of the F.B.I. for whatever purpose he wished -- to achieve whatever goals he wanted in other branches of the government.
In fact, I'd even support now renaming the F.B.I. headquarters the "Robert Mueller Building" (or for any other former director, really) -- because it is a disgrace how the man it is currently named for used to handle such things in America's past. Memorializing the most successful and most powerful blackmailer in American history in such a fashion is nothing short of shameful.
[Note: Quotes in this article, as well as supporting information, were taken from the chapter "America's Sex Czar" in the book One Nation Under Sex by Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach, Ph.D. Some might argue that Flynt is a rather suspect source, but really who would better know the history of sexual hypocrisy in this country? And it's not as if there weren't plenty of others out there making exactly the same case against J. Edgar Hoover. Quibbles about details do not detract from the central truth of Hoover's history of blackmailing Washington power players, which has been irrefutably documented elsewhere.]
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant