WASHINGTON--We Americans need to know not simply when something happens but before it does, as in the most polled and prognosticated presidential election campaign yet. Now we're seeing the same eagerness to know, and to judge, in the latest and still-unraveling sex scandal among the mighty--the sudden resignation of retired Army Gen. David Petraeus from the CIA.
A full investigation is promised as the old argument is rekindled about whether a high-ranking government figure should be cashiered for engaging in an extra-marital roll in the hay. The issue was most prominently raised in 1998 in the House impeachment and subsequent Senate acquittal of President Bill Clinton.
Democrats held their noses and gave him enough votes to save him from conviction, and he kept his job.
By contrast, Petraeus, instead of trying to fib his way through owned up to his personal perfidy and resigned. President Obama accepted the resignation without, as far as we know, saying he demanded it or wanted it. He settled for commending Petraeus for his long service, but could not have been happy at the surprise post-election present handed him.
It was somewhat ironic that Clinton lied to his wife and to a jury of his peers and got off scot-free; Petraeus did neither and voluntarily surrendered his long, heralded military career. The late career path he chose must now seem to him a colossal mistake, aside from his revealed personal transgression.
Magnifying the blow is the fact that his astonishingly undisciplined behavior is being transmitted to the world by a vastly expanded, and unshackled, news and social media. Both megaphones have speedily served up whatever tidbits have come available to build the jigsaw puzzle, with key pieces still sitting in the box. The public's need to know has become the need to find out right away whatever is out there, whether all the pieces fit or not.
If it should turn out in this case that national security or classified information was somehow compromised, much more than Petraeus' reputation could be at stake, for him and others involved. A high public figure's susceptibility to blackmail must always be considered in weighing continued service in a highly sensitive position. That's reason enough to wait for all the facts to be in before assessing whether what is involved here is only a titillating yarn, or something worse.
Yet once again the question is posed: should a public figure be judged, and punished in the public arena, for private behavior? The answer used to be: not if that behavior did not affect his public actions. If the accused was a heavy drinker, or even a serial womanizer, if his conduct did not impede or unduly influence his judgment or decisions or was not illegal, he would get a pass.
In journalism circles, this rule was generally observed in reporting or even speculating about the private lives of public figures. Rumor was rumor and was off limits for all but the gossip-mongering columnists and the airwave Walter Winchells of the day. No longer. Is it any wonder that many leading figures in the private sector enter the political realm with trepidation about disclosure of their private lives, or shun the risk altogether?
This attitude, unfortunately for the country's need for the best and brightest in all fields of endeavor, will no doubt keep many of them from making the decision to give up the security of their private worlds for the glare they may well face in the spotlight of public office.
Still, personal and public ambition being what they are, along with human nature that is disposed to all the ills to which the flesh is prone, guarantees there will be more fallen idols in our public life. And our immediate and burning need to know about their personal failings, alleged or otherwise, will continue to accompany the phenomenon.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)