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Melinda Henneberger: Conspiracists parse Petraeus affair

YOU know how the phrase "with all due respect" announces that disrespect is scheduled for immediate arrival?

Same as "It's not what you said, it's how you said it" in all cases means: "Of course it's what you said."

Another remark that I'm thinking might be in the "opposite day" phrase book: It isn't the sex that's so disqualifying, we tell ourselves and others, referring to the latest political scandal, but the perfidy, or the hypocrisy, or the lack of judgment.

Well, I'm pretty sure it is the sex.

One way in which we are becoming more French all the time, however, is in our fondness of a good conspiracy theory. (Had I not studied in France in the late '70s, I might never even have been apprised that my government was secretly in cahoots with the Soviets throughout the mostly faux Cold War that my continental friends explained was so good for business and PR. Diabolique!)

All of which came back to me over the past few days, as I've heard the following scenarios posited as actual possibilities by otherwise sane conservatives:

Maybe Paula Broadwell was sent in by the Obama administration or campaign, Smiley-style, to bring down his appointee, CIA chief David Petraeus.

Or else she was recruited after she had gotten close to him, in either case to keep us from hearing from Petraeus what really happened at our U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed on Sept 11.

It's not clear whether adherents of this theory also believe that Team Obama put Broadwell up to sending those threatened but not really threatening e-mails to her real, imagined or perhaps only pretended rival, Jill Kelley.

Or whether Kelley, too, was on the payroll as she reported the junior-high-level harassment to a friend in the FBI.

Or when she exchanged 20,000 or 30,000 pages of flirty e-mails - and, mes amis, that is a whole lotta flirting - with Petraeus' replacement in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen.

We do know that the FBI agent wasn't in on any such scheme because he's among those who felt sure that this whole scandal-in-the-making - his making, as it turned out - was an Obama-inspired cover-up designed to delay any embarrassing revelations until after the election and distract us from . . . Benghazi or maybe the "fiscal cliff."

Unless, of course, the shirtless photos the FBI agent sent to Kelley were just another bit of clever misdirection.

The highest-ranking person who definitely knew about the FBI investigation of Petraeus in October was House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., so was he in on the plot, too? No?

Our permafrost polarization makes us ever more vulnerable to such nonsense, which the Internet instantly amplifies. And Republicans may be extra susceptible this week, still so rocked by last week's election results that some are reportedly considering burying their possessions, or "thinking they're going to be growing vegetables in their back yard."

(Buck up, top earners: As someone who comes from a long line of vegetable-growers, I can attest it's not so bad.)

I'd love some answers on Benghazi, too, mind you - four Americans were killed, after all, and we have yet to hear anything approaching a full accounting.

Yet I have a hard time believing that Obama risked everything to hide or facilitate someone's affair. Then again, I would have thought that a Petraeus liaison wouldn't reflect on the president at all.

For me, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who runs the Senate intelligence committee, has been the disbelieving voice of reason, sprinting through the stages of grief before our eyes since news of the scandal broke on Friday.

"I wish President Obama had not accepted this resignation," she said then.

But by Tuesday, she seemed ready for anything: "This is the National Enquirer," she said on CNN. "I mean, every day, there is something new."

Feinstein has also said that Petraeus jolly well will testify on Benghazi: "I have no doubt now that we will need to talk with David Petraeus, and we will likely do that in closed session. But it will be done one way or another," she told Andrea Mitchell.

That hasn't slowed the conspiracy theorists a whit.

Yes, this whole story is nine kinds of improbable - unless, of course, you think that although we all have secrets, powerful older men pursuing younger women isn't a very well-kept one.

And by all accounts, Petraeus had an ego that was out of control long before Broadwell came along.

What bothers me most is that the head of the CIA was so cavalier as to put lives at risk by keeping secrets and potentially revealing some about Benghazi to Broadwell, as she seemed to indicate in a speech in Denver before the scandal broke.

In the contest of his CIA post, his rule-breaking was callous, cowardly and the opposite of a conspiracy, which typically requires a great deal of thought.

And maybe just this once, it really isn't the sex that's so disqualifying.

Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer and anchor of "She the People," a forum for women writers from across the country and the political spectrum.


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