Like many, I devoted to the recent Petraeus affair only the attention required to make a quip or two. Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley (already it’s a struggle to remember their names) didn’t linger long in my consciousness as actual people; quickly they became the naughty biographer and Tampa’s answer to Kim Kardashian, respectively. When processing a scandal, the mind makes remarkably fluid conversions from human being to character, and character to joke. Much more difficult is reversing this thinking, as I discovered the day I took a standardized test while seated next to Monica Lewinsky.
This was the fall of 2002—I was twenty-one, living in Brooklyn, and looking to escape the confusion of postcollege life. When I registered to take the law school admissions test at NYU that December, it felt less like choosing a career than like tossing a grappling hook out into the dark, hoping to catch hold of a stable future. Though public interest law seemed a perfectly appropriate path for someone raised on Pacifica Radio and political demonstrations, and though as a kid I’d logged countless hours watching the William Kennedy Smith and O. J. Simpson trials, I had neither an intellectual interest in the law nor any practical understanding of what lawyers did. Something about “briefs,” it seemed.