Washington D.C.– I was at home minding my own business last Tuesday, when I got the tip-off via Twitter from friend and neighbor Mike Elk: Paula Broadwell was holed-up in her brother’s house just around the corner, hiding out from a mob of journalists that had the joint surrounded.
How could I resist scoping out the scene?
It was 6.30 p.m. and already dark when I grabbed my camera and bee-lined for the door. I briskly walked down 18th street towards Park Road – where Broadwell was allegedly staying – before heading west down the alleyway. Elk had tweeted about the press corps being there, refusing his generous offer of beer. And sure enough there they were, digging in for the long haul – five or six of them, keeping a watchful eye on the place.
But there wasn’t much to see. The house sits behind roughly seven-foot high walls and a sizable garage. People and supplies can be ferried to and from the manor somewhat stealthily. The place could host an orgy with the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff without neighbors hearing a single “sir, yes, sir!”
Later in the week, I had heard a rumor from a cameraman that Broadwell had been exfiltrated in the trunk of a car. It was entirely believable. Indeed, Broadwell is now back in North Carolina, with photographers having obtained no evidence of her departure.
It wasn’t for lack of effort that visual evidence of Broadwell’s D.C. trip was kept to a minimum, however. The cameramen from ABC, CBS and the AP were perched on top of a wall just across the alleyway from the seven-bedroom multi-million-dollar hidey-hole. But there was not much going on. They were all just sitting there waiting for something to happen, having been there since 3 p.m.
The time passed standing in the frigid November air didn’t seem to give them much of an idea of what angle they were after, though, other than pure documentation. I asked one (Cameraman? Producer? Both?) what sort of question he’d ask Broadwell, if she came out of the house. He responded that he wasn’t really sure, gave it a moment, and said he’d probably ask what her plans are.
“What are your plans?” That the best he could come up with? It’s understandable that he wouldn’t lead with a probing query, but he didn’t have a single tough question lined up. Not one about whether pillow talk contained any classified information. Not one about the integrity of her Petraeus biography in light of their coitus sessions. Not even the cursory “have you hired a lawyer, yet?” He wasn’t prepared to do proper digging. It seemed like the journalists there were in pure paparazzi mode, interested foremost in snapping peeping-tom photos to satisfy their editors’ voyeuristic need for coverage.
Which is not surprising. From the very first day the Petreaus-Broadwell story broke, it has been mostly covered like a Hollywood sex tape joke-fest rather than the shady scandal it could easily be. Broadwell wasn’t just a fawning reporter/biographer. She was a West Point grad with a high level security clearance and experience working with “the U.S. intelligence community, U.S. Special Operations Command and an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.” She has visited the White House twice since 2009. It has also emerged that she starred in a promotional video for defense contractor Kriss Arms, hawking the benefits of a lightweight automatic weapon. Government watchdogs expressed concerns that the company might have been seeking to leverage Broadwell’s special relationship with Petraeus (you know, as her biographer) to curry favor with procurement officers. How might Broadwell, Petraeus and their friends have otherwise benefited from this relationship (selective leaks for favorable coverage? junket accompaniment?) will be revealed as more information is unearthed. Whatever might have transpired as the affair steamed ahead, however, appeared to be an afterthought to the journos on the scene.
How they even found out that she was staying at her brothers is beyond me. It probably had something to do with the fact that Broadwell’s I.D. turned up in Rock Creek Park that morning. (Sidenote: If Rock Creek Park sounds familiar in the context of the Washington extramarital affair, it’s where the body of Chandra Levy, mistress of former Congressman Gary Condit, turned up in May of 2002.) Maybe some intrepid investigative reporter with a Lexis-Nexis subscription figured she was staying at her brother’s Mt. Pleasant residence, which isn’t far from the park. Or maybe the info was leaked to the media by a friendly U.S. Park Policeman. Or maybe she had used her brother’s home phone and someone traced her caller ID. Your guess is as good as mine.
One thing is certain, though: If Broadwell was concerned about staying outside of the limelight, she would have avoided a city with the highest concentration of political journalists in the Western hemisphere.
“She must love the attention,” one photog remarked. It was an assertion that seemed true enough.
Your intrepid reporter gets mad-dogged by unnamed DC journalist…
But weighed against how luxurious the house is, perhaps Broadwell merely wanted to hole-up in style. I realized this when it dawned on me that I had been inside the veritable palace. It was way back in 2009, when a friend of mine was a dating an inhabitant, a ranking member of the mostly old money yuppie scum that were renting the place (one of the housemates was a Rockefeller). I went over to the house for a party, which my friends quickly left. They couldn’t handle the hostile upper-crust stuffiness. I, however, decided to stay because the womenfolk were tantalizingly good-looking and the Grey Goose vodka flowed like the Mekong during the rainy season. Needless to say, I left alone. My friends and I called it the Plantation Party afterward.
Ironically, the house was the focal point of a civil rights battle in 1950, when white neighbors unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit to stop a black man from moving into the place. Again, the house was making history – albeit of a relatively more ignoble nature.
Throughout the hour or so I spent in the alley, I saw two cop cars keeping an eye on the situation, making sure it didn’t get out of hand. The Broadwell stalking press corps wasn’t fazed at all. One photog asked a lady cop in the first squad car if she had brought him hot chocolate. She laughed. We all laughed. And then she went on her way.
The unsung heroes of the DC press corps!
That was the stakeout in a nutshell. Frigid boredom characterized by lame attempts at pithy humor: “I hear that dinner is ‘All In’ the oven.” And that was the best I could personally do, really.
But the monotony was punctuated by moments of tabloid frenzy. Not too long after the hot cocoa remark, an SUV came through the narrow alleyway from where the cop car had exited the scene. The driver prepared to back into the Broadwell hideaway garage. It was Broadwell’s brother! As he pulled “All In” (sorry), cameras snapped away, but never got a good glimpse of his face. He let the garage door shut before leaving the car, refusing to give the photographers the satisfaction of documenting any sort of visible emotion. That’s Washington PR savvy for ya!
The neighbors, however, weren’t so shy about their feelings. At some point, a fifty-something, pudgy, grey-bearded white fellow came out to take photos of us with a dinky point-and-shoot camera. He could barely conceal his disgust behind a forced grin. He engaged us in faux-friendly banter, warning us about “the other neighbors” who wouldn’t be nearly as cordial. He then took photos of the credentials on the news-van dashboards before disappearing into his castle of righteousness.
A little later, we got to meet one of those “other neighbors” the bearded DC liberal warned us about. The man was another middle-aged, upper-middle-class white guy seemingly perturbed by the thought of – heaven forbid – some deviation from his daily routine, and people he didn’t know milling about in his neighborhood. He aggressively approached us, demanding to know who had the temerity to park a van near his back gate in a manner ever so slightly encroaching his property line. He seemed mildly drunk, and went to lodge his complaint to the cops in a second squad car, which had arrived just as the confrontation began to escalate. I couldn’t hear the details of what he was saying, but his yammering seemed to indicate certain Baggertarian tendencies, as if 6 inches of vehicle over a property line violated the U.S. Constitution. The cops, practically sighing at being asked to enforce such a trivial violation of the law, agreed that the man’s inalienable property rights were being infringed upon. The van was moved by the guilty party. Thankfully, no U.N. Special Rapporteurs had to get involved.
The last passerby I saw – a likely neighbor – seemed to have the most reasonable reaction to the whole ordeal. When informed what was going on, he rolled his eyes and uttered an “oh, God,” before getting on with his life. I figured it was my turn to follow suit. I was growing tired of observing what was quite possibly the most uneventful stakeout in the world.
Later that week, however, the mood in the alley lightened up when both the house residents and the photojournalists largely came to terms with the fact that no one on the scene actually wanted the stakeout to take place. At one point I passed through the alleyway to show off the circus to a friend, when we stumbled upon an impromptu alley party. Neighbors were drunk, laughing it up with the few photographers that remained. The cameramen regaled us of tales about Broadwell’s brother ordering pizza for the press corps. He even brought one a glass of bourbon. Classy house, classy man! Wait, or could this be considered a pay-off? Had Broadwell been buying friendly coverage with a few slices of pizza?
But on Night One of that first stakeout, the press was all teeth. Someone spotted Broadwell through the back door window and screamed “there she is!”, launching the journalists into a paparazzi frenzy as they all elbowed and scrambled to capture the exact same Broadwell money-shot.
The photo-journalists had gotten what they had been waiting for all night long in that cold, dark alleyway. Their editors would be proud. They could feign like they had sent reporters to do adversarial journalism, while continuing to give the Petraeuses of the Pentagon enough rusty trombones to outfit an entire Music Man cast.
Judging by the material the journos collected that night, this might be the best reporting DC’s hacks have done all year.
Sam Knight is a freelance journalist living in Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter @samknight1.
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