WASHINGTON — If Gen. David Petraeus was America’s most popular soldier, he owes that in large part to his prominent presence in the Washington scene.
It showed on Wednesday.
From NBC’s Tom Brokaw and “Meet the Press” host David Gregory to, well, Montel Williams, a slew of famous media faces and former generals-turned-television analysts came to wish Petraeus well in retirement, as he hangs up the uniform and prepares to take the CIA director’s chair a few miles down the river in Langley, Va.
Since before he made his name commanding the Iraq surge, one of the biggest criticisms of Petraeus was that he actively cultivated the press corps and courted select power circles in his efforts to transform the military and the perception of it as a counterinsurgency-capable force.
As a result, of all the top defense leaders cycling out this summer, only former Defense Secretary Robert Gates attracted a more impressive guest list at his retirement. Gates had President Barack Obama, but he had no Montel.
In Washington, Petraeus’ uniformed career will best be remembered for his many moments under the lights, such as his first congressional hearing on Iraq, where he sweated for hours in a room packed with media; when he passed out from dehydration while under questioning in the Senate; and when he stood in silence next to the president in the Rose Garden, as the world — and Petraeus’ wife — learned he had been agreed to take command of the Afghanistan War in 2010.
For years, Petraeus has flown into Washington from the war zones to make headline appearances at think tanks, where he’d explain, often with excruciating numbers of PowerPoint slides, basic war strategies and why the U.S. needed to press forward. By early 2009, reporters would flock to his every visit, often plucking news from off-the-cuff comments in a hallway gaggle with the general.
But the more Petraeus visited Washington, the better he became at not making news, especially under the Obama administration. Reporters were anxious to ask how the Iraq War would end or why the Afghanistan War seemed to be stalled in its first year under Obama, but Petraeus became less accessible and less likely to engage in those informal sessions.
In the Pentagon, many troops adore Petraeus like a rock star. His post-retirement reception in the officers club was attended by retired generals Barry McCaffrey, Wesley Clark and John “Jack” Keane, as well as generals recently from Afghanistan commands and retired Sen. John Warner, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee. They know, Petraeus may be retired, but he’s not done yet.
“When it comes to the art of the possible, there is General Dave Petraeus, and then there is everybody else,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. “Quite simply, General David Petraeus has set the gold standard for wartime command in the modern era.”