Apr 11 2008

The Media Ballad of Gen. Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus is the name. And if he didn’t exist, a media presence like him would have to be invented.

Standing behind the general, of course, is a commander in chief whose highs and lows can be charted with press clippings. After mediocre reviews through most of 2001, he became the media’s genuine global-vision cowboy, guns about to blaze, atop the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. Poll ratings spiked, and pundit accolades went into overdrive. Eight months into his presidency, George W. Bush was suddenly FDR without need of a wheelchair.

He could read a Teleprompter adequately well, and if his first hours in the post-9/11 world were less than stellar, flying with evasive action from one airstrip to another, the scriptwriters and photo-op designers made President Bush a man for all ages.

Media stature suddenly monumental, the president reached new heights as the Pentagon’s bombing of Afghanistan began in October 2001. People had to die for the atrocities of September 11, and — into the thousands before the year’s end — the victims would be people who had nothing to do with the crimes of that day.

Then came the invasion of Iraq. And scarcely a year later, in the summer of 2004, the rising Gen. Petraeus was on the cover of Newsweek along with the question: “Can this man save Iraq?”

Several years and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, the rational answer would seem to be “No.” But why be rational amid all the media hype?

And why should Petraeus be accountable for his prior rosy scenarios? It was September 2004, conveniently near the start of President Bush’s autumn re-election campaign launch, when the general wrote in The Washington Post that progress in Iraq was quite impressive. “There are reasons for optimism,” he concluded.

Evidently, in the ballad of Gen. Petraeus, there always are such reasons. His testimony on Capitol Hill last week, replete with charts and graphs, was again calculated to dazzle past the graveyard as he updated the view through his rose-garden-colored glasses while speaking to committees and a national TV audience.

As The Guardian newspaper in London noted the other day, President Bush “has regularly peppered speeches with references to Petraeus, calculating — correctly — that the general’s credibility on a deeply unpopular war is higher than that of the White House.” Petraeus has cleared the low bar with ease.

As he vaults above the more mortal Washington players, Gen. Petraeus has achieved an exalted status in American media. The Guardian calls him “the closest the U.S. has to a celebrity general.” And we do love our celebs, don’t we?

Except when their feet turn to clay and their spinning-plate act turns to shattered crockery on the floor. But in the meantime, it can be seen as an impressive show.

In the classic language of a military spinmeister, Petraeus spoke about progress in Iraq that has been “significant but uneven.” And he talked in measured tones about “the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still-fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve.”

Far away from the realities of war, the general’s verbiage could seem to play quite well. By media lights, he has passed through many auditions for wisdom, his flying colors always red, white and blue.

This is a man who will, if he’s lucky, look back from golden years in a couple of decades at this awesome new peak for his illustrious career. And that’s the way it goes. Rising through the war ranks to the top, politico-military achievement and image enhancement are the essence of synergy. And we’re none the wiser, as long as we take the media dazzle all too seriously.