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Admiral William McRaven Defends Petraeus at Tina Brown’s Hero Summit Dinner

His remarks were just one element of a diverse and entertaining evening at the US Institute of Peace.

Newsweek's Tina Brown and Bono. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

It’s tough to say who was the more exotic bird at the United States Institute of Peace last night—Bono or Daphne Guinness. The eyes of the 200-plus guests followed both wherever they went during cocktails and the seated dinner after—Bono because he’s the most famous rock star activist on the planet, and Guinness, the lithe beer heiress and artist, because hers is a haute chic look we don’t routinely see in Washington, with one-of-a-kind hair that pays homage to the Bride of Frankenstein and Cruella de Vil. Each displayed calm in the crush, contrasting sharply with the loud bonhomie of the Washington regulars, all who had come to the Hero Summit as guests of its impresario, Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek and the Daily Beast.

Cocktails went on for an hour and then some, but no one seemed to mind, because the Institute of Peace is that rare federal building that offers the kind of architecture in which one just wants to stand and stare for as long as possible: soaring ceilings, high windows with a view of the Lincoln Memorial, and grand, clean expanses of white marble.

The purpose of the evening was to honor military men and women who have performed remarkable feats, beginning with Admiral William H. McRaven, who commanded the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. McRaven, interviewed by Charlie Rose, was the embodiment of grace, discretion, and assertiveness. He called himself “a man of action.” He said, “I don’t restrain myself too often,” but then added that “good leadership is restraining your urge.”

McRaven said he would talk a little about the bin Laden raid but no details. While it was an important event, he said, “On that same night there were 13 other missions.” What made the bin Laden raid different? He smiled. “It was sportier.” Asked to define the SEALs’ heroism, he said, “SEALs aren’t the only heroes out there. Everyone who puts on a uniform meets that threshold.”

McRaven seemed a little put off by the celebrity that has come to the SEALs since the bin Laden killing. There have been books—notably No Easy Day, written by a member of the Abbottabad assault team—and a major commercial movie, Zero Dark Thirty, is scheduled to open in December. “We’re trying to get the SEAL community back to where we think it should be—quiet professionalism,” he said.

McRaven praised Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was running the CIA when the bin Laden mission was hatched, as well as President Obama, whom he called “very presidential,” and “very courageous,” but he saved his highest praise for another military man and former CIA director who has taken a tumble from power: General David Petraeus.

When Rose got to his Petraeus questions, McRaven seemed relieved, like he would finally get to talk about a subject that was pressing on him. He was unequivocal in his support of the former CIA director, who resigned after revealing his affair with Paula Broadwell, his biographer. “Petraeus is the finest general I have ever worked for,” McRaven said, adding, “Holly Petraeus is a great American hero.” Without prompting, he went on. “I never saw a man more committed to his job. I don’t condone what he did. I can’t explain what he did.” Rose mentioned General John Allen, who is also involved in the scandal. “Allen is a man of integrity,” said McRaven. “The facts will prove it out.”

The interview was followed by a debrief of an Army Blackhawk helicopter crew about the high-risk rescue mission known as Dustoff 73, which happened over three days in Afghanistan. They relived the compelling details of the mission with ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz.

The first two interviews of the evening took close to an hour. Later, Bono would take the stage to interview journalist Nicholas Kristof, but beforehand, at 8, dinner was to be served. That’s not late, except in Washington. Waiters trying to deliver plates of Cornish hen with polenta had to navigate among quite a lot of table-hopping. In every direction, someone was popping up from their seat to go to another table. I was seated across from Bono, which provided the pleasure of watching him stay put as everyone came to him (and, of course, tweeting about it). Nearby was Guinness, also staying put after moving from another table far from the stage.

At one point during the evening Raddatz was seated beside Bono; then it was Tina Brown and Admiral McRaven on either side of him. The three hit it off quite well. Across from Bono was Bernard Henri Levy, the so-called “French intellectual,” Democratic representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, and business mogul Barry Diller. It was a classic Tina Brown swirl, mixing in a little bit of flash from columns A, B, and C. The only other media force who can pull this off is Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, which fits because they are like a competitive brother and sister. Wherever they go, whenever they host an event, Brown and Carter bring along an entourage of their favorite people.

Brown, a natural ringmaster, sparkled throughout the evening. She said this is her first Hero Summit, but she will come back and do it again next year. Wednesday night’s dinner was followed Thursday by a day-long conference at the Newseum, with at least a few dozen speakers, and a screening tonight of Steven Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln. The dinner provided an exceptional evening in Washington. Next year, hopefully the appetizer will be expanded beyond only macadamia nuts, breadsticks, and pesto dip—but maybe that’s how the members of the Brown entourage, namely Guinness, remain stick thin. As for Bono, we know rock stars don’t eat.

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