CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Television news is booming the David Petraeus sex scandal as the biggest event in America, giving it top billing each night. Maybe the networks want to create another Bill-and-Monica sensation like the one that gripped America in the 1990s.
After the 60-year-old CIA director and four-star general admitted a fling with a younger woman, we figured that his personal mess is mostly a problem between him and his betrayed wife. But the national media in Washington think it's a major U.S. topic.
Sexual affairs by leaders pose a contradictory puzzle. When our Gazette reporters hear gossip about West Virginia figures, we usually ignore it. We don't send photographers paparazzi-style to stake out apartments or motels. But if infidelity becomes public, it's unstoppable. Former Gov. Bob Wise was forced to quit after one term because of that snowballing circumstance.
Throughout U.S. history, some powerful male leaders have been magnets drawing women. George Washington was linked to Sally Fairfax, Thomas Jefferson to Sally Hemings, Grover Cleveland to Maria Halpin, Warren Harding to Nan Britton, Franklin Roosevelt to Lucy Mercer, Dwight Eisenhower to Kay Summersby, John F. Kennedy to a flock of beauties.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was visited by women in his hotel rooms -- causing the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover to try to blackmail him -- but that didn't prevent King from winning the Nobel Peace Prize and becoming a landmark American hero.
In the 1990s, Republicans in Congress squandered about $50 million of taxpayer money in a failed attempt to remove President Bill Clinton for White House hanky-panky that didn't involve complete sex -- yet today, Clinton remains immensely popular, perhaps America's most acclaimed celebrity.
In contrast, former Sen. John Edwards and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich both betrayed cancer-ridden wives, bringing them a degree of contempt.
Some other nations pay less attention to extramarital sex. When French President Francois Mitterrand died, his wife invited his longtime mistress and out-of-wedlock daughter to sit with the family at his funeral.
Frankly, we aren't sure whether news media should spotlight sexual flings or not. America's only rule seems to be: If an affair remains mostly out of sight, there's little reason to draw it to public attention -- but after it breaks into the open, a circus ensues.