The major players have hired high-profile, high-priced representatives to manage the fallout, watch for legal trouble, police the news media and massage damaged reputations.
David H. Petraeus, who admitted to an extramarital affair and stepped down from the Central Intelligence Agency on Nov. 9, has engaged Robert B. Barnett, a superlawyer whose online list of clients only begins with the last three presidents. Though he is perhaps best known for negotiating book megadeals for the Washington elite, his focus this time is said to be steering Petraeus' future career, not his literary life.
Petraeus' biographer and lover, Paula Broadwell, who has said that Republican political donors encouraged her before the scandal to run for the Senate, has crossed party lines to hire Dee Dee Myers, the former Clinton White House press secretary and television pundit. Myers said her firm, the Glover Park Group, has four people at work just tracking and responding to media requests.
Jill Kelley, the Tampa hostess whose complaint to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about anonymous emails touched off the conflagration, is represented by Abbe D. Lowell, one of Washington's top white-collar defence lawyers, who earlier this year successfully defended John Edwards, accused of illegally using campaign funds to cover up his extramarital misadventures. Lowell, an acquaintance of Kelley's from the Washington social scene, immediately brought in Judy Smith, an old hand at scandals in the capital, who promotes herself on the Web as "America's No. 1 Crisis Management Expert."
Even a peripheral character has retained a spokeswoman. Natalie Khawam - Kelley's twin sister, whose main connection to the scandal is the reference letter Petraeus wrote for her in a messy child custody case - hired the celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred. Allred held a news conference at Washington's Ritz-Carlton on Tuesday to "correct misconceptions" about her client.
"My sister Jill and I aren't just twins, we're best friends," a tearful Khawam said in front of a dozen television cameras and 30 reporters, some of whom seemed puzzled as to the purpose of the gathering.
"We played varsity tennis together - she played net and I served," Khawam said. Also, "we love to cook together - I usually bake and she sautes."
About Kelley and the FBI investigation she set off, neither she nor Khawam could offer any comment, said Allred, last seen representing one of the women who accused Herman Cain, the Republican presidential candidate, of sexual harassment.
In fact, the sole major figure among the scandal's dramatis personae not to have at least a semi-famous representative is Gen. John R. Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, whose emails to Kelley are under review by the Defence Department's inspector general to determine if any were inappropriate. But the taxpayers have provided him with a top military defence lawyer, the chief defence counsel of the Marine Corps, as well as skilled military spokesmen, though they focus mainly on the war.
Law enforcement officials say it appears unlikely that anyone involved in the scandal will be charged with a crime, though the FBI's investigation of possible cyberstalking by Broadwell, unmasked as the author of the anonymous emails, has not been closed.
But since Washington scandals often unfold mainly in the media, an enduring ritual is to secure not just a legal adviser but a public relations specialist - often the same person, said Robert M. Entman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and author of "Scandal and Silence: Media Responses to Presidential Misconduct."
"Scandals aren't well-calibrated," Entman said, and the media response can be wildly unpredictable. "It makes sense to hire someone who understands publicity and understands how the media works."
Myers said her firm was enlisted by Broadwell's lawyers, Robert Muse and Joshua Levy, to "help Paula and her legal team navigate a crowded media environment, manage incoming requests and ensure that her story is accurately told. It's really impossible for anyone in Paula's situation to manage the daily avalanche of interview requests, let alone try to fact-check the stories that are out there. So it makes sense to get some help."
Much of the help comes in background conversations with reporters to rebut rumours, correct supposed misconceptions and put the client's story in a sympathetic light. It often does not involve public statements.
"I have no comment. Hope you will understand," said Barnett, Petraeus' lawyer. Lowell, too, declined to comment on behalf of Kelley, as did Smith. Allen's lawyer and spokesman have limited themselves to a brief statement saying that he will fully cooperate with the inspector general's inquiry.
Allred was slightly more forthcoming, even if her main focus was not the scandal itself but the treatment of Khawam in her custody case. But she nonetheless offered counsel to the media assembled at the Ritz-Carlton, where Petraeus and Broadwell in late October attended a black-tie dinner of the OSS Society, dedicated to the predecessor to the CIA.
"I would urge everyone to be cautious about engaging in stereotypes and language which may turn out to be not accurate in the end," Allred said. "This is where journalistic integrity and skills are at stake."