It was obvious long before the presidential primary season got underway that many Republicans thought they could take back the White House, but didn't believe they had a winning candidate in a field of wannabes long on wingnuttery and short on competence. And so in the most extraordinary attempted Hail Mary play in modern American political history, as well as a betrayal of journalistic ethics breathtaking even for America's favorite right-wing television network, longtime media guru and Fox News founder Roger Ailes dispatched one of his most sycophantic reporters to Afghanistan in the spring of 2011 to plead with then-General David Petraeus to run for president.
As reported by the legendary Bob Woodward last week in the Washington Post, the upshot was that shamelessly partisan Fox talking head K.T. McFarland met for 90 minutes in Kabul with Petraeus, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, to plead Ailes' case, which was that the general should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director, accept nothing less than chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but then resign his commission and run for president.
"Here's the thinking," McFarland tells Petraeus in a digital recording of the meeting obtained by the Post:
"That they're nervous about . . . They feel that Obama had this mandate. And the mandate -- in his own mind. Obama wanted to do Obamacare . . . He wanted to do environment, which is basically controlling all aspects of the economy. And education, which is the future. So he pushed for Obamacare. He got that done. They didn't anticipate 2010 results. But he now is going to lie low and be very centrist so that they win in '12 and they get the other two. Now, what they need -- and this is not from the chiefs, this is from political people -- and what they need to cement it so that it doesn't get reversed is a third term. And that means 2016, they need to win, the Democrats need to win, and they need to win with their guy. Their kind of guy. So that then you'd have the stuff as locked in place for a generation. Nobody can come in like Reagan came in and reverse."
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McFarland's rambling statement made political sense, but it also reflected the paranoia gripping old-timers like Ailes and now-cashiered Fox analyst Karl Rove 18 months before the 2012 election.
While the Democrats had cleaned the Republicans' clock in the historic 2008 election, Republicans had done well in 2010, but at a price: While they had recaptured the House, Tea Party zealots had captured the GOP, and their out-of-the-mainstream views would be a turnoff to independent voters, notably women, in 2012. That is why a four-star general positioned as a centrist and not a flip-flopping former Massachusetts governor was viewed as having the best chance of ousting Obama.
McFarland also told Petraeus that Ailes might resign to run his presidential campaign, and Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp., which owns Fox News, would finance the campaign, or as she put it: "The big boss is bankrolling it. Roger's going to run it. And the rest of us are going to be your in-house [cheerleaders]."
"Rupert's after me as well," Petraeus acknowledged in referring to the press baron, who has long sought to be a kingmaker with prime ministers in Great Britain.
In any event, the general wasn't biting, and in fact had spurned previous overtures from conservative Republicans to get into politics. He accepted Obama's offer a few weeks later to become CIA director.
As events played out, the story of Petraeus' affair with biographer Paula Broadwell broke on November 9, three days after Obama won re-election. But what if Petraeus had accepted Ailes' offer and won the election? Would Paul Ryan or another vice presidential running mate become president-elect after the former general's all-but-inevitable resignation because of the Broadwell scandal? Possibly. (See sidebar below.)
Incidentally, Ailes -- as is his wont when caught out -- told Woodward the whole thing was "a joke." He later walked back from that, explaining that "I thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate."
McFarland also claimed it was a joke, but she has shown a disinclination in the past to distinguish fiction from fact. She told a group of Long Island Republicans in 2006 when she was planning to try to challenge Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, that the incumbent was spying on her by sending black helicopters over her house to take pictures.
* * * * *Like most Americans and most journalists, I was seduced by Petraeus. Unlike most journalists, I suspect there is a back story to Obama's decision to make him CIA director. He was viewed in the White House as something of a loose cannon and a potential rival. As head of an intelligence agency that in my view is dysfunctional, Petraeus might actually do some good, while staying out of the limelight and the president's way.
How ironic -- although in retrospect not surprising -- that Petraeus was felled not by an enemy, but by lust. Michael Hastings goes deep on this while unraveling the Petraeus mystique at BuzzFeed Politics in the best piece on the general's rise and fall.
"More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus' entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth, on deception, on building a false image," Hastings writes. "Yes, it's not what actually happens that matters -- it's what you can convince the public it thinks happened."
To that extent, the Petraeus-engineered surge in Iraq, while strategically savvy, was oversold as a success by the man himself. He became a symbol of how things finally were going right, while the reality is that Iraq is in a sort of perpetual chaos today and much more cozy with Iran than the U.S.
Positive media reports fueled by Petraus aside, his not dissimilar strategy in Afghanistan was a failure, although that was inconvenient for the Obama administration story line.
Jon Lee Anderson writes in The New Yorker that there may yet be another act for Petraeus:
"If he licks his wounds and is seen praying humbly at his local church and does the right thing by his wife and family, America will probably forgive him. He can return to public life as a paid military consultant for CNN; he might even be able to run for political office. Senator Petraeus has a good ring to it. But that is a redemption tale yet to be told. For now, it may be enough to ponder what it is that brought Petraeus—and all of us all, together—to this particular rise and fall."
WHAT IF PETRAEUS WON, THEN HAD TO RESIGN?
The Democratic and Republican national committees have adopted rules for selecting replacement candidates in the event of a nominee's death, and presumably his resignation, after the election.
If the apparent winner of the election dies or resigns before the Electoral College votes in December, the electors probably would endorse whatever new nominee their national party selects as a replacement. If the apparent winner dies or resigns between the College vote and the official counting of its votes in Congress in January, the Twelfth Amendment stipulates that all electoral ballots cast shall be counted, presumably even for a dead or resigned candidate.
In cases where a president has not been chosen by Inauguration Day -- January 20 -- or the president-elect "fails to qualify," the vice president-elect becomes acting president on January 20 until there is a qualified president.
In case you're wondering, if there is no president-elect or vice president-elect, the Twentieth Amendment gives Congress the authority to declare an acting president until such time as there is a president or vice president. At this point, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 would kick in, with the office of president going to the Speaker of the House. That would be John Boehner.