Yesterday, we noted how Howard Kurtz proclaimed that he was pleased to put Tom Ricks, his former Washington Post colleague, on his CNN show Reliable Sources to trash his fellow journalists on the Petraeus scandal. Ricks believed no one should care about the "personal life" or "lovers' quarrels" of the sex-starved CIA director.
But in rereading this interview, here's what's quite remarkable. In 1400 words of transcript, the two former Posties trade insults about how awful the press behaved in this incident....and neither breathes a word about the biggest dupe in the entire scandal: Washington Post metropolitan editor Vernon Loeb, Paula Broadwell's co-author. Loeb wrote after the scandal broke that he never took the notion of an affair seriously: "My wife says I'm the most clueless person in America."
Loeb is so clueless about what's going on around him he's qualified to run The New York Times. (Mark Thompson BBC scandal joke!) But Loeb didn't just embarrass himself, but the newspaper he works for.
Ricks is breaking out the old Bill Clinton line -- that great men of great talent should never be bothered when they're "embedded" with attractive women in the workplace. It's especially chilling when he implies the media weren't nice enough to Mrs. Petraeus on this, as if Mrs. Petraeus was wronged more by the media than by her husband. (Shades of Hillary Clinton?)
Here's the whole sorry interview transcript. See the Loeb avoidance for yourself:
KURTZ: The media furor over the David Petraeus scandal cast a harsh line on the man who is hands down America's most famous general. It also sparked questions about the way in which Petraeus courted journalists and how that may have affected his coverage, including the affair that prompted his resignation as CIA director.
Joining us now is Thomas Ricks, longtime Pentagon correspondent for "The Washington Post" and "Wall Street Journal", and who blogs at ForeignPolicy.com. His latest book is "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today". Tom, welcome.
THOMAS RICKS, "THE GENERALS" AUTHOR: Thank you.
KURTZ: Based on this book, "The Generals", one of them is Petraeus. You had one earlier book called "The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq." Fair to say I think that you're an admirer of Petraeus?
RICKS: Yes, and I remain so.
KURTZ: And what's it like working with him? He's known to be very adept at working the press?
RICKS: And that was a good thing, I think in terms of generalship. He understood, as many Army generals don't, that you need to use the media to get your views out, that it's a responsibility of a general to explain to the American people what you're doing with their money and their children in some war overseas. And so, he engaged and he used that megaphone to explain -- this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm trying to do.
KURTZ: That's an interesting verb, "use" the media. Some would see that as manipulating the media.
RICKS: I think he did. And I think he did it well. But it's part of the job of a good general. I think Dwight Eisenhower did it in War World II. He became the face of the war, kind of explaining it to people, routinely holding press conferences, talking to reporters.
KURTZ: And how much did that courtship and those relationships and the e-mails exchange with journalists, and all of that, has that contributed to more sympathetic coverage given his problem with the affair with Paula Broadwell and the resignation at CIA, that he might have gotten otherwise?
RICKS: No, I don't think so. Actually, I think the media has been in full shark bite frenzy without regard really. If anything I find the real scandal here -- or one of the scandals here is how much the media has turned on Petraeus.
Here's a guy who has four combat tours in recent years. That's more combat time than any American general had in World War II, who has a smashed pelvis from a parachuting accident, who has a bullet wound through the chest from a training accident. He and his family, and I include his wife Holly Petraeus in that, have given enormously in the last 10 years. Yet when this scandal broke, we as a country were not as generous with him as his family had been with the country.
KURTZ: You seem to be suggesting that journalists are biting the hand that fed them, they were perfectly happy to have good relations with General Petraeus when he was on top. Suddenly, this scandal happens, fall from grace, huge tabloid style scandal, and you say the press has turned against him. Because I've seen a lot of -- particularly people like who know the guy, it seems to me the tune is more sympathetic, a tragic -- a tragedy for his family as opposed to the junkyard (INAUDIBLE).
RICKS: It's a matter that should have remained private, first of all. It's not a criminal act. There's no allegation that he's committed a crime here, as far as I know. You know, it could always change, more information could come out.
But here, he was in a relationship with a consenting adult who was not in his chain of command. He's hardly, I think, probably the first CIA director to have had an affair. This begins with another scandal which is the FBI investigating a lover's quarrel, which I think is an abuse of taxpayers' dollars.
KURTZ: You think Petraeus should not have resigned.
RICKS: No, I don't think he should have --
KURTZ: Or once it became public, you felt he had no choice?
RICKS: Well, it became public because he resigned. I think in -- President Obama could have handled by saying, you know, Dave, you screwed up big time here, you need to make amends to your wife and your punishment is you're going back to work. It could have been kept quite. And if it ever leaked out, the president could have said, look, this was a private matter involving a misjudgment by Petraeus, he's dealt with it and I'm confident the national security hasn't been harmed.
KURTZ: And you would have that view if this was some former four-star you hadn't dealt with?
RICKS: I'd have that view I think of any public official who has given great service to the country. You know, I just don't understand the frenzy of going after this guy. There is no allegation of crime. It's even worse with John Allen, this Marine general, who sends a bunch of e-mails to a woman, and he's suddenly engulfed in scandal.
I mean, news flash here number one, David Petraeus is a human being. News flash number two here, Marine officer flirts with a woman. I mean, I think the standard of journalism is getting pretty low here for using the word scandal.
If you want a scandal? Scandal is mediocre leadership in Iraq for several years and nobody asking a question in Congress about it. A scandal is John Allen, a fine general, being dragged into this mess, and people thinking it's part of a scandal. A scandal is FBI looking at lovers' quarrels. A scandal in Afghanistan is 11 commanders in 11 years.
KURTZ: As you write in your book.
RICKS: No way to run a war.
KURTZ: So you believe the media's priorities are completely screwed up in the sense that the serious questions about running a war and people's careers devoted to military have been subsumed, overshadowed, blown off the screen so to speak in favor of the focus on sex and scandal.
Let's face it. I mean, the CIA director resigns under these circumstances. The general is running the war in Afghanistan. His nomination to be the top NATO commander is put on hold under these circumstances. I mean, it's hard not to cover the story, but you think that the -- we are scandal obsessed in this business?
RICKS: Yes. I was thinking earlier this week that I'm glad I'm no longer in The Washington Post because I would have been pressured to cover this. I would have had to cover this.
RICKS: And I would have been really conflicted, because I think it is an immoral misallocation of priorities. We as a nation seem to care more about the sex lives of our generals than the real lives of our soldiers. I actually printed out something before I came over here today.
It's a great trivia question. Excuse me, in my service I need to use glasses. Who is Sergeant Channing B. Hicks? Who is Specialist Joseph Richardson? The answer is they were two soldiers who died last Friday in Afghanistan. Everybody in the country knows Paula Broadwell's names. Nobody knows those men. Nobody knows soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan.
KURTZ: In addition to Petraeus, just briefly, you think the media coverage has been unfair to Paula Broadwell, to Jill Kelley as they have become the center of this media storm?
RICKS: Yes. We've just set these people on fire basically. These were consenting adults engaged in private acts. The lack of decency, I think, is kind of appalling to me. I mean, also the consequences of what's happened to these people.
We don't have so many good leaders that we can throw them away casually. General Petraeus stood out over the last 10 years as notably more effective than most of his peers. The message we have sent here is you can be a mediocre general as long as you keep your pants on.
KURTZ: You're not proud of your profession at this point?
RICKS: No, I'm embarrassed for the profession. I really am. I'm worried for the country that we don't talk about our wars until there is some sort of titillating scandal.
KURTZ: That would be exhibit A for that view. Tom Ricks, thanks very much for stopping by. Appreciate it.