David Petraeus, who has wandered for months in his own private wilderness, is superbly poised for a major comeback.
Why? Because he has apologized, and it appears that he means it. Americans like that.
Compared with some other American public figures toppled by scandal, Petraeus is coming back the right way.
Unlike Richard Nixon after Watergate, Petraeus has offered a clear, sincere sounding public apology. Nixon squirmed and sweated and prevaricated for years after he hurled himself out of the White House, but he could never find in himself enough manhood and public relations common sense to declare the simple words that might have saved his presidency in the first place: "I made some major mistakes, I acknowledge them unreservedly, and I ask the nation to consider forgiving me."
Similarly, a John Edwards comeback was never going to happen. Not only did he get tangled up with another woman while his wife was dying of cancer, he denied it, and then a "love child" appeared in the tabloids, as did a chatty mistress. Then Edwards offered TV quasi-apologies so weird and painful to watch that America decided just to switch him off permanently, shaking him off like a bad dream.
In contrast, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter's career seemed doomed by a call-girl scandal in 2007, until he held a press conference, took responsibility for his actions and asked for forgiveness. Result: He was re-elected in 2010, and is now considered a front-runner for the Louisiana Republican gubernatorial race in 2015.
Other polarizing figures have come back from messy, highly chaotic personal lives, like Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani. It ain't easy.
When I interviewed Petraeus for my book about the Iraq War a few years ago, I held a healthy dose of skepticism about his reputation as the man who turned the war around with the "surge." I felt that momentum for a turnaround had already developed before Petraeus got back to Iraq in early 2007, thanks in part to the Iraqi Awakening movement of 2006 and its American supporters, largely fairly junior U.S. military officers in Anbar Province, like Capt. Travis Patriquin and his colleagues.
The funny thing was, Petraeus told me he thought pretty much the same thing himself. That impressed me. Either he is a self-aware man with a dose of humility or a shrewd manipulator of his audience. Either trait will serve him well.
I doubt we'll see Petraeus in a straight government job anytime soon. The circumstances of his CIA departure were just too messy. But other than public service, the world is his oyster, thanks to the towering reputation he had before the scandal.
Petraeus might even run for office someday. Given his intelligence and communication skills, and the often wretched choices voters are presented with, he might even have a shot. After that, would a President Petraeus be in the cards? A real long shot. But don't laugh too hard. Stranger things have happened.
For now, though, he is well-positioned to become a highly sought-after TV pundit, corporate board member, Silicon Valley partner, you name it.
He might write a big book about his career and military insights. He'll be courted by Hollywood and the press. In the right Hollywood hands, his book might even make a hell of a good movie. He will give big speeches on the national security issues of the day, and might even advise a president or two again someday.
Americans seem to have limited patience for public figures who lie, cheat, steal or make spectacles that make everyone look silly.
But when someone fouls up in a spectacular fashion, especially when it involves a personal matter, Americans will give them a break and a second chance -- as long as they stand up like a man or a woman, admit they screwed up, say they're sorry and look like they damn well mean it.
Welcome back, Gen. Petraeus.
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