When David Petraeus formally retired from the Army on Wednesday, it marked the end of more than just an acclaimed 37-year military career. Instead, it signaled a more far-reaching event: the twilight of the celebrity general.
Petraeus leaves the military as one of the best-known officers of the past 50 years and with a public profile higher than that of any recent predecessor other than Colin Powell. Like Powell, Petraeus faces unrelenting speculation about a future career in politics, potentially as a Republican presidential candidate. Publishers believe his future memoirs will fetch a multimillion-dollar advance, and those who know the academically-minded Petraeus well speak of him one day taking the helm of a prestigious university like Princeton, where he completed his doctorate.
(PICTURES: Gen. Petraeus Honored in Retirement Ceremony)
For the moment, Petraeus will remain in public service, though in a position with a far lower profile than his battlefield commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. He next week becomes the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a position he had privately lobbied for once it became clear that he would not be named the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a recent interview, a close aide of Petraeus’s in Kabul said he expected the former general to use the CIA posting as a stepping-stone to higher-ranking civilian positions like secretary of State or national security advisor.
Petraeus is the last, at least for now, in a string of celebrity generals dating back to the Civil War, when Ulysses S. Grant became so well-known for his battlefield exploits that he was elected president shortly after retiring from the armed forces. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed a similar level of public renown during World War II and was the last prominent commander to win the White House, but the so-called “Good War” minted an array of other celebrity generals, from Douglas MacArthur to George Patton (the subject of an Academy Award-winning movie). More recently, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf won widespread public acclaim for his leadership during the first Gulf War; when combat ended, he even held a high-profile victory ceremony of sorts at Disney World.
Petraeus was one of several generals who burst into public consciousness during the decade of war which began with the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. They penned best-selling books, made regular appearances on television, and represented the public face of the military during an era where it enjoyed unprecedented support among both lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the general public.
Tommy Franks, for instance, was a four-star Army general who ran the military’s Central Command during the Iraq invasion. After his retirement, Franks wrote a memoir called “American Soldier” which debuted at the top of The New York Times best-seller list, pushing Bill Clinton’s autobiography out of the top slot. Richard Myers, a four-star Air Force general who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, traded jokes with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show after he retired in September 2005. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has made multiple appearances on The Daily Show and took Stewart with him on a recent USO tour through Afghanistan.
But this present era of the celebrity general is clearly drawing to a close. The unpopular Iraq and Afghan wars are winding down, with majorities of the American public consistently telling pollsters that the conflicts were not worth their high human and financial cost. Defense spending, which doubled in the decade after Sept. 11, has leveled off and will begin to decline in coming years. And the staunchly pro-military sentiment of the past 10 years has been replaced by a willingness to cut the Pentagon's budget to focus on the nation’s yawning budget deficit.
The shift is also being fueled by the simple fact that none of today’s generals have public profiles even remotely as high as that of men like Petraeus and Mullen. Incoming Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno is highly regarded within the White House and hugely popular with rank-and-file soldiers, but the media-averse general is virtually unknown to the general public. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who will succeed Mullen on the Joint Chiefs next month, has a good sense of humor and frequently begins his public appearances by belting out snippets of songs like "New York, New York.” But Dempsey remains similarly unknown to the public, with fewer than 5,000 followers on Twitter and only a bare-bones biography on Wikipedia.
Petraeus, by contrast, was so well known outside the military that his fellow officers—half derisively and half enviously—called him “King David” behind his back. The public adulation began early. In July 2004, Newsweek put Petraeus on its cover above a headline which asked, “Can This Man Save Iraq?” He has been featured in an array of high-profile books about Iraq, including Linda Robinson’s 2008 Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq. Early next year, Army officer Paula Broadwell will publish an authorized biography called All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.
Petraeus has maintained strong relationships with an array of journalists, allowing reporters to spend days shadowing him in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That access has led to glowing coverage that pushed his public profile even higher. In 2007, for instance, Time tabbed Petraeus as one of the 100 most influential leaders of the year and as a runner-up for its Person of the Year award. The following year, Newsweek named him one of the most powerful people in the world. And in 2010, ABC’s Barbara Walters picked Petraeus as the “Most Fascinating Person” of 2010. “In life, it seems, there are people who break things and people who fix them,” Walters said on air. “This man is a fixer.”
Petraeus has yet to publish an autobiography of his own, but he has already enjoyed enormous success as an author. In 2005-2006, he led the effort to revamp the military’s manual for waging counterinsurgency campaigns like the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within a week of its release, the manual had been downloaded more than 1.5 million times. A subsequent version published by the University of Chicago Press spent several weeks on the best-seller lists.
“Only David Petraeus could take a military manual and make it a great stocking stuffer, too,” Mullen joked at Petraeus’s retirement ceremony on Wednesday.
“Dave, you have run the race well, swifter, and surer than the rest, and you now stand among the giants not just in our time, but of all time, joining the likes of Grant, Pershing, Marshall, and Eisenhower as one of the great battle captains of American history,” Mullen told the crowd. “You remain the brightest star in the constellation.”
With his pending move to the largely invisible world of the CIA, Petraeus’s star is sure to dim in the months ahead, a change the general himself knows is coming. In an exit interview he did with the Pentagon Channel a few days ago, Petraeus noted that “most observers will suggest that the director of the CIA should have a heck of a lot lower profile than the one I’ve had in the past.” At least for the moment, it’s not clear if—or when—the military will find a celebrity officer with the public standing to replace him.