In this June 23, 2011 file photo, CIA Director nominee Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Intelligence Committee during a hearing on his nomination.


Petraeus' potential seemed endless

  • Washington Post
  • November 9, 2012 - 10:03 PM

On the march to Baghdad in 2003, back when many Americans expected the Iraq war to last weeks and not years, a little-known two-star Army general named David Petraeus posed a question to a reporter accompanying him that would come to define the grueling U.S. combat mission there: "Tell me how this ends."

Before long, it was a query that many began to pose about Petraeus himself. After refashioning the military's strategy for fighting insurgencies, after picking up his third and fourth stars, after overseeing the troop surge in Iraq and running the U.S. Central Command, and after taking charge of the war in Afghanistan, Washington buzzed with speculation of his next move.

Would he run for president? Would he be Mitt Romney's running mate? Nothing, it seemed, was out of reach for the United States' most-famous living general.

'Striver to the max'

Now, we know how it ends for Petraeus. His resignation as CIA director because of an acknowledged extramarital affair aborts an almost four-decade-long career in public service defined by boundless ambition, political savvy and strategic acumen. And it almost certainly tarnishes the legacy of a man seen by many as the nation's preeminent military leader in the post-Sept. 11 world. As a general, his message was not just about military tactics. He preached individual leadership above all else, often telling his charges that character meant doing the right thing when nobody was watching.

For Petraeus, the race to the top began early. He grew up outside the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which he entered as a cadet in July 1970. "A striver to the max" was how he was described the West Point yearbook in 1974. A month after he graduated, he married Holly Knowlton, the daughter of the academy's then-superintendent.

A hard-charging narrative

Petraeus quickly made a mark as a young officer, earning awards in almost every assignment. He received all three prizes awarded in his class at Ranger School, perhaps the Army's toughest physical challenge.

Unlike most of his peers, he pursued opportunities that were not always the most exciting but would come to help him later. He served as an aide to four-star generals, carrying bags and cultivating valuable friendships. He also carved out time for advanced education, culminating in a doctorate from Princeton University.

Two accidents almost ended his career. In 1991, he was shot in the chest with an M-16 rifle when a soldier tripped during a training exercise. While skydiving in 2000, his parachute collapsed while he was 60 feet off the ground; the impact shattered his pelvis.

Although the injuries had no discernible impact on his physical abilities -- he regularly beat junior officers in foot races -- Petraeus framed a hard-charging narrative of recovery. He frequently told the story of doing push-ups in his hospital room to persuade his doctor to let him leave, but he didn't mention that occurred after he had been readmitted to the hospital because he did not follow orders to rest.

By Friday, his resignation reverberated across Washington with the power of a 2,000-pound bomb. Many who knew him wondered how he could have been so hypocritical. They recalled his admonition about character and nobody watching. And some remembered the warning he often tacked on: "Someone is always watching."

© 2018 Star Tribune