Paula Broadwell, in one word

In this Jan. 15, 2012 photo, Paula Broadwell, author of the David Petraeus biography "All In," poses for photos in Charlotte, N.C.


By PETER ST. ONGE | The Charlotte Observer | Published: March 21, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — How would you describe Paula Broadwell?

She’s been in the news again, reluctantly so. The man with whom she had an affair, Gen. David Petraeus, took a plea deal this month for giving military secrets to Broadwell, who was writing his biography.

The Observer has written about that case and that relationship, and we’ve published things others have written. In those reports, Broadwell, who lives in Charlotte, is often referred to as the general’s “mistress.”

She doesn’t like that word. She thinks it’s sexist and demeaning.

“I can deal with the repeated old news, but such non-stop chauvinism is reprehensible,” she said in an email to me last week.

Broadwell would prefer what CBS and NBC reporters have called her – a “biographer.” But “biographer” doesn’t capture the context of her relationship with Petraeus. “Mistress” is more fully descriptive.

But is it fair? Mistress doesn’t have a gender equivalent. It’s a word that’s tangled up in culture, history and how we see women who cheat differently than we do men.

People here at the Observer have talked about that, including the metro editor and managing editor – who both happen to be female. This week, publisher Ann Caulkins decided that future reports we publish on Broadwell and Petraeus will use the term “one-time lover” and “lovers” to describe them.

I’m guessing that Broadwell won’t really be satisfied with “one-time lover” or most any other mention of her and the general. Which makes her like pretty much all people who’ve made mistakes. They want to steer our gaze forward, not back. They want to move on.

But Broadwell is newsworthy all over again. When a general pleads guilty to passing on classified information, the person who got that information is part of the story. As is how it all happened. Just because it’s salacious doesn’t make it less legitimate.

But now, that story defines how most of us see Paula Broadwell. That word – whether it’s lover or mistress or something worse – is part of the mental caption we write when her name comes up.

Maybe that’s unfair, too. But when you make a mistake, you lose some of your identity to it. You’re given a word, one-dimensional as it might be.

It’s easy to understand why Broadwell would resist this. Ask her to describe herself, and she would probably tell you “wife” or “mom.” That’s what’s at the top of her Twitter page, along with “vet” and “surfer” and “activist.”

That email she sent me last week? It was an offshoot of a conversation about an op-ed she submitted on human trafficking in Charlotte. She also advocated for wounded servicemen before the Petraeus scandal broke.

She says she can’t talk, for obvious legal reasons, about that relationship. So I asked her what word she would use, if she had just one, to describe herself. “Resilient,” she said.

She’ll have to be. It’s hard to escape our worst moments, especially in public, where 140 characters pass for deep thinking, and where one word is too often enough. Because words are imperfect, you know, just like we are.

pstonge@charlotteobserver.com; @saintorange

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