“Leon the Lip”

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DoD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Panetta speaking to troops at Barksdale Air Force Base last week

Leon Panetta first ran afoul of a president when he was a lowly federal staffer more than 40 years ago. The president was Richard Nixon, who didn’t like the way Panetta, then a civil-rights advocate at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, pressed the Administration to speed up school integration. Panetta resigned, moved back to California and ran for Congress. Nixon’s own Oval Office tapes captured him describing Panetta’s resulting 1971 book on the experience, Bring Us Together, as “a case history on how to screw the White House.”

Now, after a dazzling career that has taken him from the Capitol, to the White House, to his current post running the U.S. military, he finds himself in — and out — of hot water once again.

Panetta volunteered Feb. 1 that the U.S. was looking to hand over responsibility for combat operations across all of Afghanistan to Afghan troops sometime in 2013 – well before the planned U.S. departure by the end of 2014. Then he apparently suggested to a reporter that Israel might strike Iran as soon as this summer. That was too much of a green light for the White House, which three days later yanked the reins. “I don’t think,” Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer shortly before the Super Bowl kickoff, “that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do.”

Panetta’s allies say Leon was just being himself. Confiding and candid, and blessed with an easy laugh, Panetta, 73, has been around Washington longer than Eric Cantor has been in long pants. He spent 16 years in Congress rising to Budget Committee chairman, and then became the rare Democrat to serve in four Cabinet jobs: budget director and chief of staff for Clinton, and CIA Director and now Pentagon boss for President Obama. No one else alive in his party has had such range or depth.

On Afghanistan, Panetta made explicit what many in the U.S. military believe: after a decade of war, Afghanistan’s security forces need to start shouldering more of the load faster. He was multitasking: prodding the Afghans to get their act together, while making clear Obama’s desire to bring U.S. troops home as quickly as possible. It’s a high-wire act, and he’s under unusual pressure from his party as the first Democrat to run the Pentagon since 1997, and not simply default to GOP-lite.

As a one-time junior Army officer – and a son, one of three, who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan with the Navy reserve – Panetta has the gravitas to run the Defense Department. That’s something – as the nation’s military officers increasingly lean Republican – Democrats don’t always seem to have, or understand. But Panetta speaks their language. “I’ve been in hearings for the last three days,” he told airmen in Louisiana Feb. 17. “Shit, I think I should get some kind of award going through that crap.” (“He’s the consummate straight shooter,” George Little, his spokesman at the CIA and now the Pentagon, says. “You always know where you stand with him.”)

But sometimes his words go off target. After Panetta met with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius earlies this month, the columnist wrote that “Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June.” That came as a jolt to the Obama Administration’s carefully orchestrated plan to keeping tightening economic sanctions on Iran. The goal is to give them enough time – through the election, perhaps – to bite. Any attack would likely derail that strategy. It would only delay Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons by a year or two, Administration officials believe, and encourage Tehran to develop nuclear weapons. Diplomacy, Obama said in that Super Bowl chat, remains the “preferred solution.”

Senator Roger Wicker asked Panetta about Ignatius’ assessment of the defense secretary’s thinking. “I usually don’t comment on columnists’ ideas about what I’m thinking,” Panetta responded. The Mississippi Republican pressed him on whether he has a view on the chance of an Israeli attack on Iran this spring. “I do not,” the Pentagon chief said. It was classic Panetta sleight-of-mouth: the world will recall what Panetta was supposedly thinking long after it has forgotten his denial.

But sometimes it’s just Leon speaking Leongua franca. He relishes the role: “There was some talk here of trying to put a seven-second delay on the microphones for the ceremony,” he said at his Pentagon swearing-in. “But I can’t imagine why the hell that would be necessary.” He praises two top Army officers of Italian heritage as his “spaghetti generals.” And he regularly blames his not-so-bon-mots on his parents, who emigrated to California from Italy. “As an Italian,” he told laughing members of a congressional panel on Feb. 16, “I’m a control freak.”

Panetta is nothing if not in charge. The next day he told those troops at Barksdale Air Force Base – safely out of congressional earshot – about that “crap” he had to endure before Congress, even as he had made lawmakers laugh. “I told General [Martin] Dempsey [chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who shared a foxhole with Panetta during their testimony] I need a new combat badge for going to Capitol Hill,” he said. The ensuing pause echoed Bob Hope’s perfect timing when addressing the troops. “With clusters.”