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U.S. General David Petraeus testifies at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing to become commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in this June 29, 2010 file photo. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
U.S. General David Petraeus testifies at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing to become commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in this June 29, 2010 file photo. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

How could David Petraeus, at the top of his career, be so foolish? Add to ...

In all the prurient rubber-necking of the Petraeus affair, the question being hotly debated around the workplace coffee pot has less to do with the potential leaking of national intelligence, and more an apparent shortfall of basic intelligence: How could David Petraeus, at the top of his career, be so foolish?

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In fact, science suggests, his brain pretty much stopped thinking – or at least failed to consider the consequences rationally. By the time, the head of the CIA entered into a full-blown affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, a woman 20-years his junior, research on infidelity says that he was no long weighing out the risks to his 38-year marriage, or the cost to his career. Powerful people enjoy, and are tempted by, the heady life ingredients for cheating: They travel a lot, they collect yes-people who look the other way and they assume, rightly, that their overtures are likely to be warmly received.

So to put to rest the brewing Internet nastiness shamefully directed at Holly Petraeus, who is an able professional in her own right (and the one player in this case who by all accounts, continues to act with proper discretion): The fact that her husband cheated has absolutely nothing to do with her, or her grey hair. (And if it did, Tiger Wood’s wife, with her blonde locks swinging, would have never had cause to take a golf club to his car.)

As psychologist Frank Farley told the USA Today, powerful people tend to be risk-takers, and risk-takers are more prone to take chances, like sneaking out on their spouses.

The fact that they continue to do so – the ever-growing list of dishonored power-brokers includes John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, etc. – may be baffling in hindsight.

But it’s a classic tale, in this case with a cast of “dime-novel” characters, as The Week noted in a clarifying timeline of the tawdry narrative.

As Atlantic senior editor Robert Wright laments, who Petraeus was canoodling in his spare time has distracted the populace from more serious considerations of his role in the CIA’s top job, to say nothing of the real question as yet unanswered: Was any security actually breached in this case?

But it’s the fallibility of humanity – and, especially, the self-induced fall from grace of those we hoist highest – that so fascinates us.

We can’t help it; we’re only human.

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