The Public Flogging Before a Political Comeback

Officials like David Petraeus and Mark Sanford need to fix things with their families, not the public.

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David Petreaus is sorry. So is Mark Sanford. So was David Letterman and Tiger Woods and a slew of other men who had extramarital affairs. Why on Earth should we care?

Petraeus, who was involved with his (married, also) biographer, began his first public speech after his resignation as CIA director with an apology—not for anything he did on his job, but for the private relationship that had nothing to do with any of the rest of us who aren't married to him. Said the retired four-star general:

Needless to say, I join you keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago. I am also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey was my own doing. So please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret—and apologize for—the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the David Petraeus Scandal.]

It's not that Petraeus doesn't owe someone an apology, but that person is his wife. It's none of the business of the rest of us, and arguably makes it much more humiliating for his spouse to have the episode discussed in detail in the press. Making someone's private pain even more public doesn't ease the emotional suffering.

The same goes for Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who seemed to be auditioning for a personal mention in a textbook about mid-life crises. Sanford ran off with his Argentine girlfriend, and—now that he's running for a congressional seat—says he's really sorry for any pain he caused us.

There's something a little narcissistic about presuming that the whole country feels betrayed by your extramarital affair. And there's something even more narcissistic about asking your ex-wife if she'll work on your campaign. But making a public spectacle out of a private indiscretion doesn't make things easier on the wronged party. It diminishes her role and her pain.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Is David Petraeus's Affair Really a Scandal?]

The same goes for people in entertainment and sports—stop saying you're sorry for having affairs. Actually, don't stop saying you're sorry, just stop saying it to the rest of us.

Only later in Petraeus's speech at an ROTC dinner did he bemoan the poor treatment of the nation's veterans—many of whom have been waiting a year or more to have their disability claims processed. Now, there's a scandal. If public officials want to apologize for something, they can start there.

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