David Petraeus: Too soon for a comeback?

David Petraeus resigned in disgrace as CIA director last November after an affair. Now, he suggests he's ready to get back into public life. Recent history has plenty of role models.

Reed Saxon/AP
David Petraeus, former Army general and head of the Central Intelligence Agency, speaks at the annual dinner for veterans and ROTC students at the University of Southern California, in downtown Los Angeles, on Tuesday. It marked Petraeus's first public remarks since he retired as head of the CIA after an extramarital affair scandal.

After a 4-1/2 month silence, following his very public fall from grace, retired Gen. David Petraeus has signaled he’s ready to come back to public life.

But are we ready? Chances are, yes.

The storied general, who resigned as director of the CIA on Nov. 9 after revealing an extramarital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, spoke Tuesday night at a dinner at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for veterans and ROTC students.

Right up front, General Petraeus apologized for the affair, citing “extremely poor judgment.”

"I know that I can never fully assuage the pain that I inflicted on those closest to me and on a number of others," Petraeus said, according to news reports. "I can, however, try to move forward in a manner that is consistent with the values to which I subscribed before slipping my moorings and, as best as possible, to make amends to those I have hurt and let down."

And he signaled he’s ready to move on: “One learns after all that life doesn't stop with such a mistake. It can and must go on."

The question is, what is Petraeus’s next chapter and does it still possibly include politics? Before Petraeus’s dramatic fall, he was often mentioned as a potential candidate for president – a line of speculation he never fully discouraged. He may be thinking more along the lines of corporate boards and lucrative speeches, but history suggests he needn't rule out a run for office.  

After all, there is a long, bipartisan tradition in American politics of sexual indiscretion followed by redemption. Take Republican Mark Sanford, who faced emotional turmoil in 2009 as governor of South Carolina when he revealed an extramarital affair with his Argentinian mistress (now fiancée). He served out the remainder of his term but was censured by the state legislature. He may well be on the verge of winning a special election for Congress, after coming in first in the GOP primary earlier this month.

There’s also Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana, caught consorting with prostitutes in 2007, but won reelection anyway and could be his state’s next governor. Politico recently lauded his skill in reinventing himself as a Senate insider.

And then there’s former President Clinton, who survived impeachment after lying under oath about an affair, and, as an ex-president, enjoys an image as an elder statesman with public popularity ratings in the high 60s.

Petraeus, of course, has never run for office, and being a novice politician with personal baggage may be a heavy lift. But we still don’t rule out that he might give it a shot. He is still married to Holly Petraeus, admired in her own right for her work on behalf of veterans (and not present at the speech in L.A.). We can assume that she has a say in how they chart their future path. Another possibility is a high-level government appointment. But if he wants to avoid pesky reporters, he might find the private sector more agreeable.

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