Sweet stench of Petraeus scandal shouldn't mask the stink of Benghazi

Salacious perfume threatens to overpower investigation of how Sept. 11 tragedy unfolded

U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. Former Navy SEAL commandos Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

Remember them? They were the four Americans killed in the terrorist attack at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

They did not soil their family names. They did not shame their country. They did their jobs. And they paid for it with their lives.

But this week as congressional hearings are held to determine what happened to them, the four have been marginalized, exiled to the dark side of the news. They've been pushed aside by a scandal — what's now called the Petraeus affair.

If this story were a flower, it would be something sickly sweet and vulgar, like night jasmine opening in a closed room. From the outside, the first whiff seems nice. Enter the room and shut the door and you'll begin to gag.

But there are no blossoms. Instead, we see political cadavers. Reputations and lives are being destroyed. Politicians hop from one political carcass to another. Innocent families, wives and children, are left to watch.

How tawdry can it get? The New York Daily News ran a front page with the curvy social butterfly Jill Kelley on the cover in a canary yellow dress — with an insert photo of the disgraced David Petraeus — and this headline:

"In the line of booty."

Think on that. In the line of booty. That's where we are now.

A reasonable person would hope it would be the most tasteless line of the week, but there are more days to come, with more salacious news to follow. Every media organization is pursuing this story. And every player with an agenda will leak and spin. It won't stop.

There's the disgraced and ousted ex-CIA Director Petraeus and his mistress and biographer, Paula Broadwell, who allegedly began sending threatening emails to Kelley, thinking Kelley was after her boyfriend.

And Kelley became worried, and contacted an FBI agent in Florida — an agent who reportedly once sent her a photo of himself without his shirt on — and he investigated. She wanted an investigation, and she got one, shirt or no shirt.

Some accounts say the agent didn't like the slow pace of the investigation. So he decided to go around his bosses and contact Republicans in Congress to apply the pressure. They in turn contacted senior FBI officials in Washington. It was over for Petraeus then. And that agent's career must surely be over as well.

Then it turned out that Kelley and four-star Gen. John Allen — the top commander in Afghanistan — exchanged thousands of what are being called "improper" emails. The jasmine opens again and sends out more heavy perfume: Another report has both Petraeus and Allen intervening in a custody battle involving Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam.

She's been described as "emotionally unstable," which is a polite way of saying wack job. But Petraeus and Allen put their names on the line for her, perhaps because Kelley asked them. Either way, that's all part of the record, too.

Allen was slated to be named the supreme commander of allied forces in Europe. That has been put on hold. He'll never get it now. He's done.

What should worry us isn't the sex and the gossip. It's the real possibility that some of this drama was picked up by foreign intelligence agents. It's their job to find the fountain, sop the spill with a sponge and send it to their bosses back home.

Except for that, and if it weren't for the gold braid and the political influence, this could be some cheap reality TV show. Like the one involving that unfortunate fat girl called Honey Boo Boo, although this one stars Honey Broadwell, and she runs half-marathons and chases generals.

The one to feel sorry for is Holly Petraeus, the daughter of a general, the wife of another general, who like all military wives must have gone through hell year after year, helping her husband climb the ranks. And now this.

It's all so distasteful and cheap, relentlessly so. And it comes too fast, and many of you will want to shut it down and turn it off.

You could shrug and say that there's nothing new about old men making fools of themselves with young women who are excited by the aphrodisiac of power. It's the oldest story in the world.

And I'd support you in seeking ignorance about this, except for one thing. It's your country. And your armed forces. And it's your government. It doesn't belong to the politicians and the groupies. It belongs to you.

So it's our responsibility to pay attention. And it's President Barack Obama's responsibility to air it out, and clean it up.

Petraeus must testify publicly at the congressional hearings. So should Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The election is over. It's time for Obama to lead, and to be open about this Petraeus business, and about Benghazi, and what the White House did and didn't do.

Citizens wait for answers. Soldiers in the field wait for resolution. There are young people, high school kids, who dream of becoming cadets at West Point, Annapolis or the Air Force Academy. They're watching, too.

Most of all, let's not forget the four Americans who waited for help that didn't come for them in Benghazi:

Stevens. Smith. Woods. Doherty.

They didn't dishonor their country. Instead, they died for her.


Twitter @John_Kass