Deborah Hill Cone: Scandal a tale of power-hungry women

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Petraeus pair should realise love and meaningful connections in life come from vulnerability, not dominance

Paula Broadwell's nom-de-plume in her anonymous messages to Jill Kelley was "kelleypatrol". Photo / AP
Paula Broadwell's nom-de-plume in her anonymous messages to Jill Kelley was "kelleypatrol". Photo / AP

I know shamefully little about really important geopolitical stuff such as the names of who wields power in China, but I could win Mastermind with my virtuoso command of minutiae in the General Petraeus affair.

What was Paula Broadwell's nom-de-plume in her anonymous messages to Jill Kelley? "kelleypatrol". How old is the FBI's "shirtless man"? 47.

I love a sex scandal with wiring diagrams. The conventional narrative about the downfall of a powerful man and the aphrodisiac of power is not really the zany bit in the fall of the head of the CIA.

We've seen that Shakespearean tragedy many times before. As a right-wing blogger quipped: "If you can't manage two women at once you can't manage the CIA." But the Petraeus story isn't about the frailty of the man himself; it lays bare the unseemly secret battle for status between women.

Take neck-snapping Paula Broadwell, a woman never so happy as when she is showing off her bare upper arms. She is like Jack Reacher's oestrogen doppelganger: graduated from West Point, does ultra distance running and wrote the biography of David Petraeus.

I suspect "writing his biography" may become the nifty new euphemism for "discussing the Ugandan situation". But what a broad! I bet she would fit right in to the group "intelligent, classy, well educated women who say f*** a lot".

She is the sort of social climbing ballbreaker I would have loved to be for much of my life if it were not for my feeble upper body strength. Regrettable, as Hamilton's Melville High School would have been the perfect training ground for elite counter-terrorism agents. Like Broadwell, I was a prize-winning brown noser.

And if I couldn't have any power myself, I would settle for being around people who had it. In my 20s I was a stout power-seeking missile with big shoulder pads and cheap hairspray. But, strangely, although I still have poor bicep definition I think I've learned some vital lessons that Paula Broadwell hasn't, for all her access to classified information.

Here's one shameful truth: sometimes when young, clever, attractive women have affairs with craggy older men, it is not for the ego boost of being desired by some well-connected bloke; instead it is the dishonourable thrill of "winning" him off a rival. What else is the interchange between Broadwell and gauche socialite Kelley if not a Darwinian battle for status?

Broadwell was free to be kind to Holly Petraeus in the acknowledgments to her book because she didn't really see the wife as the main competition. For a certain type of dominant woman the conquest is the whole point. Note that we see pictures of Holly Petraeus but no pictures of Broadwell's husband. The men are almost irrelevant in this psychodrama because there is enough testosterone among the women. It is disheartening.

For all the apparent achievements of feminism, when it comes to relationships, women are still scratching each other's eyes out over men. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that driven women who boast they can do hundreds of pull ups frame the world in terms of winning, even in love. But it's certainly not sisterhood the way our feminist trailblazers imagined it. Just like Carrie Mathison with Saul on Homeland or Mattie Storin in the 1990s political thriller House of Cards, young, successful women apparently still need a father figure.

I also shouldn't be surprised that some of the most successful people have the most fragile constructs of self and unravel in relationships. Because the truth they don't teach at Harvard is that love is not about competition and power.

Love and all the really meaningful connections in life come from vulnerability, not dominance. It has taken me 45 years to learn that. But I hope my daughter, who is 8, grows up with a capacity for empathy rather than a fierce appetite for power. And I hope she knows a darn sight more than me about what goes on in China.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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