From all appearances, David Petraeus was in his element. It was the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 7, and the CIA director was the keynote speaker at a high-minded foreign-policy conference in Washington held by the World Affairs Councils of America. The audience of roughly 250 people crowded into a ballroom to hear what was billed as an off-the-record conversation with the legendary general–turned–spy chief.
Petraeus held forth on a vast range of global topics, including U.S. economic competitiveness, China, Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, and the turmoil in the Middle East. “He was thoughtful and methodical,” gushed one participant. “Wow, what an amazing mind.” It was the kind of virtuoso performance for which Petraeus had become known: an effortless, incisive tour of the world.
At that very moment, however, Petraeus’s own private world was cracking at the seams. Earlier that day, his boss, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, had confronted Petraeus about his affair with his 40-year-old biographer, Paula Broadwell. Clapper had urged his colleague to resign, and Petraeus agreed that he had no other choice. “It was,” says Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Clapper, “a difficult and wrenching conversation.”
Now as Petraeus wowed the audience at the World Affairs conference, Clapper was delivering the news of the CIA director’s affair to the White House. After the event, as the guest of honor sped off into the night, people still milled about the ballroom where the conference was being held. They had no idea that anything was amiss.
Soon enough, the people who attended the event, like the rest of America, would begin to learn about a different side of Petraeus. But even as details of the scandal have trickled out, some fundamental questions about the relationship between Petraeus and Broadwell have remained cloudy. What drove this most disciplined of men to be so reckless? What accounted for the bond that he formed with Broadwell? And above all: what might have caused these two particular people to have an affair at this particular time?