Like many other hacks who covered Iraq in the years after the US invasion, I too had the privilege of interviewing General David Petraeus. Unlike some of his US colleagues in Baghdad, who only ever really bothered talking to American outlets, he was media-savvy enough to remember that there were other nations contributing to the war effort besides the US – hence the audience with UK papers like The Sunday Telegraph.
True, while he granted me a generous 40 minutes of his time, our relationship never quite progressed to the level of “access” enjoyed by Paula Broadwell, the journalist with whom he has had an affair. One thing I did glean, though, was that where a fitness fanatic like Petraeus was concerned, the way into his affections was definitely via his running shoes. Mrs Broadwell talks here about how she bonded with him on his long morning runs in Afghanistan. And in similar fashion, on my previous, first attempt to secure an interview with Petraeus, I was scooped not by some big player like CNN or The New York Times, but by a man from a magazine called Runner’s World.
It was back in September 2007, during the height of the Baghdad troop surge, and Petraeus was just about to present a much-anticipated report to the US congress on the success of the effort. As a result, it was also one of the few times that he was keeping a low profile and not doing interviews. Or so I confidently told the office, anyhow. Only to bump into the Runners’ World reporter at an army press centre, where he was en route to his one and only assignment: an interview with Petraeus, the man everyone else was trying – and failing – to get.
Unaware at the time of what a keen runner Petraeus was, I did initially wonder whether the general’s press aides had misheard something over the crackly phone lines from Baghdad. Perhaps, I hoped, my rival would turn up only for them to say: “Huh? Runners’ World? No, we said Gunners’ World…”
Alas, it was not the case, and the Runners’ World man duly got his scoop (although it did involve going running with Petraeus in the searing Baghdad heat, and also being challenged by him to a press-up contest). Luckily for me, though, the magazine didn’t run the piece for several months, by which time the Telegraph foreign desk had forgotten all about it.
You can read the full Runners’ World piece here. It’s a well-written interview, and while it didn’t contain many revelations on the success of the troop surge, Petraeus did reveal how he judged people a great deal on how well they ran.
“When we bring a new guy in, I take him out for a run,” he said. “I’ll go out hard, then ramp it up around five miles to try to waste him. I want to know how he’ll react and respond to the challenge, what his strength of character is.”
Clearly, Mrs Broadwell passed that test…