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Jill Kelley: The Real Story Lies in Tampa

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A couple of weeks back I laid into Howie Kurtz for printing an interview with Jill Kelley that was shamefully light on extracting answers, in particular the only answer we want from Jill Kelley: namely, how did a woman like her -- a voluptuous Tampan housewife who throws parties -- come to be such a close friend of the nation's former top military leader, David Petraeus? And are we safe as a result of this "friendship"?

Kurtz instead talked about the stresses faced by a "private" person thrown into the media spotlight -- and argued that this perspective merited a story. Well, that would be fair enough if Jill Kelley truly wanted to be a "private person." But Jill Kelley is the equivalent of a George Clooney ex-girlfriend whining that her photograph has appeared in US Weekly. Kelley and her sister Natalie Khawam are military groupies. They have posed for numerous society photographs in Tampa. In fact they are much more than just military groupies: they are fame and money groupies. Just ask the Steinbrenner family, or even their sister Caroline's ex-husband Tony Khawam! Or an ex-boyfriend of Natalie's Lew Blum. I know all this because unlike Howie Kurtz, unfortunately, I have spent so many months researching the Kelleys -- including a week in Tampa, Florida -- I may as well have earned myself a masters degree in the subject by now. (Read the full story at Town and Country magazine).

Obviously, had I known what I was in for, I wouldn't have chosen to dwell in such a deep abyss of tackiness, but total immersion in Kelley-land did actually hold some insights more valuable and intriguing than a simple study of the Machiavellian psychology of a pair of social climbers.

David Petraeus, his friend Gen. John Allen and Vice Admiral Robert Harward -- all senior military personnel and all close friends of the Kelleys -- only ever encountered and fell into close friendships with people like Jill Kelley and her sister Natalie for one reason: Tampa.

Had our military's top brass been stationed almost anywhere else, a friendship like this could not have happened or been sustained. But Tampa, as I discovered, is not like anywhere else. Tampa, I realized when I got there, wasn't just the background to the Petraeus/Kelly/Broadwell/Allen brouhaha. It WAS the brouhaha. Socially, it is more porous than quicksand. In Tampa people get out of prison and run (almost successfully) for political office. Politicians are thrilled to dine with anyone -- well, almost anyone -- and they do. So do the military who are thrilled to be feted by people who don't ask them "So how are we doing in Afghanistan?" and who treat them as reverentially as Manhattanites treat billionaires -- when in fact they are quite far away from being even millionaires.

In Tampa they get to kick back with the locals and Petraeus, especially, played fooseball with civilians into the wee hours. Many officers loved to watch the trains run in a "train" room owned by Marc Rosenthal, a popular member of town. Nobody stands on ceremony. Small wonder that the military men thought Jill Kelley and her sister was just "riots." As Natalie says in my piece, "I am Petraeus' version of People magazine." It's what he was looking for.

The townsfolk are desperately proud of MacDill airforce base and its inhabitants who provide Tampa with half its economy. But they are just as proud of Mons Venus, the strip joint where most of the military go, and where the nude lap dance was invented. It is a town full of contradictions and serendipity. One night there I found myself at dinner inside a beautiful house a few doors down from the Kelleys. The son of my hosts works with, of all people, Paula Broadwell's husband, Scott, in Charlotte... the Kelleys have absolutely no idea of the remarkable connection...

Another night I found myself helping volunteers feed veterans and I encountered a man who knew the Kelleys... he was George W. Bush's cousin. You could see the family resemblance in his features. His name was GW Bill Hamblin. He served in Vietnam and now he works hard for AT&T because his pension is so small. Every week he organizes a group, the Bayshore Patriots, that stands on Bayshore Boulevard about a mile down from the Kelley's house and waves red flags at the sea. "We've been doing it since 9/11" he told me. "It's a warning to terrorists. We are telling them to stay away. We are still standing."

His impression of Jill Kelley whom he has seen at various military benefits? "That's just a lady who wants to be noticed," he said and went back to waving his flags into the wind.

It was hard not to be moved by his tenacity and that of his jean-clad group.

That's why I got so cross that Howie Kurtz wrote what he wrote. Because he didn't know the real story about Jill Kelley. The real story lies in Tampa -- where Jill Kelley was certainly not known to shy away from the press or the famous. David Petraeus was Tampa's George Clooney -- and she and her sister were blatant wannabe Stacey Keiblers.