I had an interesting weekend. Maybe you did, too. It’s always a mixed bag, you know? Some Friday nights are drunken and exhilarating; other Friday nights are empty and reserved. And then, of course, there are those Friday nights when random people believe you accidentally forced the resignation of the head of the CIA.
We’ve all been there.
I’m not sure what I should write about the previous 72 hours of my life, or even if I should write anything at all. Technically, nothing happened. But I’ve been asked to “explain” how and why a certain non-event occurred, and I will try my best to do so. If you already know what I’m referring to, you will likely be disappointed by the banality of the forthcoming details. If you have no idea what I’m referring to, I will now attempt to explain what a bunch of other people desperately wanted to believe, mostly for their own amusement. It’s a good story (not a great one, but a good one).
On Friday evening, I started watching a movie in my living room just after 9 p.m. This particular movie was 184 minutes long. I didn’t want to be distracted, so I turned off my phone. When the film was over, my wife mentioned that she had just received an odd, alarmist e-mail from a mutual friend of ours. I subsequently turned on my phone and instantaneously received a dozen text messages that ranged from the instructional (“You’re on the Internet”) to the inscrutable (“This totally makes up karmically for that time you caused Billy Joel to go to rehab”). I had no idea what any of this meant (or even what it could mean). But what had transpired was this: At 9:09 p.m., the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine had tweeted the words “interesting letter” to his 48,000 followers, along with a link to an article published in the New York Times Magazine on July 13. What happened after that is totally bizarre and stupidly predictable.
It was an honor to be involved.
First, some necessary background: Since June, I’ve been writing a column for the New York Times Magazine called “The Ethicist.” The existence of this column predates my involvement by many years (I’m now the third person who’s occupied this particular title). “The Ethicist” is structured like a conventional advice column, but that’s not really what it is; it’s more like a collection of nonfictional thought experiments based on questions from the public. The ongoing goal is to isolate moral dilemmas within the day-to-day experience of modern life and to examine the potential ramifications of those quandaries in a readable, objective way.
On July 13, this was one of the letters we published:
My wife is having an affair with a government executive. His role is to manage a project whose progress is seen worldwide as a demonstration of American leadership. (This might seem hyperbolic, but it is not an exaggeration.) I have met with him on several occasions, and he has been gracious. (I doubt if he is aware of my knowledge.) I have watched the affair intensify over the last year, and I have also benefited from his generosity. He is engaged in work that I am passionate about and is absolutely the right person for the job. I strongly feel that exposing the affair will create a major distraction that would adversely impact the success of an important effort. My issue: Should I acknowledge this affair and finally force closure? Should I suffer in silence for the next year or two for a project I feel must succeed? Should I be “true to my heart” and walk away from the entire miserable situation and put the episode behind me? NAME WITHHELD
It’s a compelling letter. Who it was specifically about wasn’t something I even considered at the time (because these questions are supposed to be examined in a vacuum). This was my response:
Don’t expose the affair in any high-profile way. It would be different if this man’s project was promoting some (contextually hypocritical) family-values platform, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The only motive for exposing the relationship would be to humiliate him and your wife, and that’s never a good reason for doing anything. This is between you and your spouse. You should tell her you want to separate, just as you would if she were sleeping with the mailman. The idea of “suffering in silence” for the good of the project is illogical. How would the quiet divorce of this man’s mistress hurt an international leadership initiative? He’d probably be relieved.
The fact that you’re willing to accept your wife’s infidelity for some greater political good is beyond honorable. In fact, it’s so over-the-top honorable that I’m not sure I believe your motives are real. Part of me wonders why you’re even posing this question, particularly in a column that is printed in The New York Times. Your dilemma is intriguing, but I don’t see how it’s ambiguous. Your wife is having an affair with a person you happen to respect. Why would that last detail change the way you respond to her cheating? Do you admire this man so much that you haven’t asked your wife why she keeps having sex with him? I halfway suspect you’re writing this letter because you want specific people to read this column and deduce who is involved and what’s really going on behind closed doors (without actually addressing the conflict in person). That’s not ethical, either.
On November 9, Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus was forced to resign his post as result of an extramarital relationship with Paula Broadwell, his likewise married biographer. It appears that Broadwell broke into Petraeus’s Gmail account on the suspicion that Petraeus was having a second affair with a third woman (and that this third woman became so alarmed she contacted the FBI). These details can be better explained elsewhere, and they obviously have nothing to do with me. But the rediscovery of this curious letter did prompt a lot of political obsessives to ask a speculative (but not implausible) question: Was the anonymous man who wrote that July 13 letter Paula Broadwell’s husband?
It’s important to remember that there is no evidence whatsoever that this was the case. None. It is 100 percent conjecture. The generic details in the letter fit the circumstances of the affair, and — because the writer is so adamant about the government executive’s import — it does seem like it could feasibly apply to a man of Petraeus’s stature. Other intersections were less meaningful but equally strange (for example, Broadwell and I both grew up in North Dakota).1 In fairness, it should be noted that — technically — the connection between the letter and Petraeus was always framed as a rumor. Nobody claimed to have proof of anything. The only problem is that rumors are now reported with the same tone and structure as hard news, and modern readers (no matter what they claim) have been trained to consume gossip and fact in the exact same way.
I went to bed on Friday very late. When I awoke on Saturday, I got the strong sense that most people aware of this theory assumed it was (probably) true. The various media reports were all roughly identical: To his credit, David Haglund of Slate was the one reporter who did attempt to immediately e-mail me for comment (but by the time I received the message he had already published the story). The Atlantic wrote a nice follow-up and noted that Slate had unsuccessfully tried to contact me, thereby defining me as “notoriously hard to get ahold of.”2 There was a sidebar in the New York Daily News that compared the “Ethicist” letter to Penthouse and claimed I had advised the victimized spouse to suffer in silence, which is the polar opposite of what I told him to do. Oh well. I know how cookies crumble.
Late Saturday morning, the New York Times reinvestigated the origin of the letter and concluded it was not written by Broadwell’s husband (I was not involved in that process and can’t comment on what was discovered). That, in many ways, is the whole story: People believed a rumor, and then they were informed that it was a coincidence. Certainly, some goofballs continue to think this is a conspiracy, which is going to happen in every situation involving the CIA (and with most situations involving the New York Times). Outside of being discussed by strangers, my personal involvement was negligible (which is why I’m reluctant to write about it now). But here are the main questions about this business, just in case you’re still curious about an imaginary controversy that was the social-media equivalent of noting how Abe Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater and John Kennedy was shot in a Lincoln automobile manufactured by Ford:
Q: Do I know who sent the original letter? Yes and no. The New York Times still has the original e-mail and I know the guy’s e-mail address — but that doesn’t mean much, unless I decide to befriend this dude on Facebook. It takes about 45 seconds to create a false address. The letter went through the fact-checking process when the article ran in July; the man was proven to exist and confirmed that the details in his letter were an accurate representation of his predicament. I know what he says his name is, and I don’t think he’s lying. But I don’t know what he looks like or to whom he’s married. I’m guessing he had an interesting weekend, too.
Q: When the news broke on Friday night, did I immediately think this letter was about David Petraeus? Here’s my honest response — I did not, until so many other people expressed such certainty that it was. I just had a gut feeling that these events were not connected (a few of the coincidences were remarkable, but the language in the letter seemed slightly off-center). That said, my gut is wrong all the time. I have learned not to trust it.
Q: What would it mean if the letter were about David Petraeus? I thought about this question quite a bit. Those speculating about the level of connection between the “Ethicist” column and the secret life of Petraeus often seemed to be working from the position that (perhaps) it was this very letter that spurred the FBI’s initial investigation. And I knew that was virtually impossible. That made no sense at all. This was, at best, an ancillary relationship and a historical footnote. It was an “interesting letter,” which is why I selected it in the first place. But that’s all it was, even if it had been precisely what others imagined. I suppose I had some mild fear that the letter could have been planted as a creative form of blackmail against Petraeus, but that would have been impossible for me (or anyone) to anticipate.
Q: If the letter had indeed been about Petraeus (and if I had somehow known this in July), would I have answered the question differently? No. If I had to answer this letter today, I would provide an identical response.
Q: Was I contacted by the CIA or the FBI? I was not. Although I’ve heard about 200 jokes about Homeland.
Q: Since I openly expressed doubt about the motives of the letter writer, why did I publish this letter at all? Because my personal suspicions don’t matter within the context of what I’m trying to do here. To a degree, I’m skeptical of all the letters I receive (the reason I so specifically noted that skepticism in this response was because it felt relevant to the content). People have all kinds of personal, subterranean motives for wanting their private problems analyzed in public; for the most part, those motives fall outside my purview. I’m interested in the ethical, metaphorical value of the problems themselves.
Q: How did I feel while all this was happening? I was fascinated. It was fascinating. I spent a lot of time refreshing my browser. But — of course — it was happening to me, so how else was I going to feel? It’s weird to be inside the news. Moreover, following any event on Twitter radically amplifies the illusion of its import. It makes you believe things matter far more than they do.
Q: What can be learned from all of this? We’ve now reached the part of the essay where I’m supposed to write something clever and insightful and at least 51 percent true. I’m supposed to express a sentiment like “Information is only as credible as the source that reports it” or “Reality continues to remain imaginary” or “All I know is what I read in the papers.” I suppose I could theoretically turn this into some dark commentary about the Internet, or about how every thought in a mediated culture becomes equal, or how nothing is ever as interesting as the sex lives of strangers, or that this situation reminded me of Karl Rove’s reaction on election night, or that this situation reminded me of something that happened to me in eighth grade, or that nothing reminds me of anything (and that this realization is very, very existential).
But you know what I learned from this? Nothing. I learned nothing. It’s just something that happened (and it just so happens that it happened to me). Life is crazy. But I already knew that last Thursday, and so did you.