Petraeus reality show hard to ignore

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On the David Petraeus affair, I'm of two minds, which is one too many for a columnist to have.

On the one hand, I know women are still trapped in a "Mad Men" world, where the boss gets promoted and the secretary gets fired when an affair is discovered. In politics, when a male candidate loses, he is just another failed candidate; when a female candidate loses, her defeat is somehow representative.

Four years ago, after then-Senator Hillary Clinton lost to then-Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary, we all had to suffer through pages of commentary about whether the party could ever afford to nominate another woman. This year, after Mitt Romney's loss, there is no such talk about whether Republicans will ever nominate another of his kind again. His kind is pretty much the only kind they have.

The lesson: Female solidarity requires that I show understanding and sympathy with the Patraeus women. When one woman is maligned, we all are.

On the other hand, the women of the Petraeus affair are larger than life. If a man did what Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley are accused of doing, the story line would be the same.

And Petraeus, although he's the reason anyone is paying any attention at all, has become a cipher.

The lesson: The less the news media can find out about the star of the show, the more they will focus on the bit players.

This is especially true when the star has a coterie of current and past colleagues, journalists, high government officials and public relations and legal counsel to protect him. Both Broadwell and Kelley have hired crisis managers, too. Kelley's is so well-known for guiding the unschooled through roiling waters that there is a TV show, "Scandal," modeled on her life.

Broadwell and Kelley flew close to the sun. The grad student with a penchant for résumé inflation became the biographer and mistress of perhaps the most famous general since George Patton.

Then something happened between the general and his biographer and the affair ended, but she had invested so much that she didn't want anyone else to have Petraeus' affection. So she ended up sending threatening emails to her romantic rival.

Her rival, as it turns out, was a doyenne of military party planning. Kelley has diplomatic inviolability, if not immunity, as she hosted dinners and fundraisers for nothing more than the chance to rub an occasional four-star elbow and get the odd e-mail answered.

What kind of sisterhood would keep a female journalist from writing about all of this? Just as those "Real Housewives" (Kelley and her sister actually appeared on an episode of a reality show) always end up scrapping with each other over the crumbs of society, Broadwell and Kelley brought each other down. It's impossible to avert our eyes.

It is through a combination of bad judgment and bad fortune that Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley find themselves at the center of attention. It is not only because of their gender. In fact, if a powerful woman were playing the part of Petraeus in this saga, I'm confident we would be using the same microscope to examine the men fighting over her.

Instead of Paula and Jill, it would be all about Paul and Jack. What a story that will be.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.