Almost five months after he retired as CIA director when he admitted to an extramarital affair with his biographer, David Petraeus returned to the public stage on Tuesday night, at a University of Southern California dinner for military veterans and ROTC students. The amply decorated former general opened his speech with an apology:
I join you keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago.... So please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret — and apologize for — the circumstances that led me to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters.
Petraeus received a standing ovation from the 600 guests both before and after he spoke, so it appears that at least the friendly audience of military families is willing to let bygones be bygones. But the appearance, scheduled before he resigned, is now just "the first step in what appears to be a carefully choreographed comeback attempt," says Alexandra Zavis in The Los Angeles Times. Will the rest of the country be as forgiving? The public-rehabilitation experts are bullish.
"America is a very forgiving nation," says Michael Levine, whose clients included Michael Jackson after his first child molestation investigation. "If he follows the path of humility, personal responsibility, and contrition, I submit to you that he will be very successful in his ability to rehabilitate his image."
Howard Bragman at Reputation.com agrees, telling USA Today that Petraeus has made all the right moves so far — including admitting to his affair, once it was discovered, instead of trying to cover it up, like Bill Clinton and John Edwards. "I think the world is open to him now," Bragman says. "I think he can do whatever he wants. Realistically, he can even run for public office, although I don't think he'd want to because he can make more money privately."
Petraeus isn't making this up as he goes along. As Zavis at The Los Angeles Times notes, "Petraeus' rehabilitation is being managed by a high-powered Washington lawyer, Robert B. Barnett," whose clients include Clinton and a veritable Who's Who of Washington power players. The former general was pretty vague about his future plans, allowing only that he will support some nonprofits that help veterans. But Petraeus has also reportedly been offered seats on corporate boards, academic positions at universities, jobs at financial institutions, and lucrative speaking and consulting gigs — all positions where the state of his reputation matters.
As successful a first step as his USC speech appears to be, one person was notably absent: His wife, Holly Petraeus. On the one hand, Mrs. Petraeus has a job, working in the Obama administration on the financial problems of military service members and their families, says J.K. Trotter at The Atlantic Wire. On the other hand, the affair has reportedly thrown the long marriage into turmoil. So it's safe to say that whatever America decides, Tuesday night's speech "is unlikely to be the last time Petraeus apologizes for his misdeeds, in public or in private."