Leon Panetta
Leon Panetta; drawing by Pancho

What is the process by which someone becomes a Washington eminence? A young person, of either Republican or Democratic persuasion, hits town with big dreams, perhaps alighting from Union Station to join the taxi queue and take in that first, breath-stopping glimpse of the Capitol dome. He has a contact or two, or perhaps a low-level assignment already waiting for him, and onward he charges to bend the beast to his will.

It’s all very exciting at first. He beams with self-regard as he learns to navigate the tunnels that join the Capitol to the House and Senate office buildings; he lets his government ID dangle conspicuously around his neck while out for beers. Then the years begin to pass. Our young person sees that the beast has not been tamed, indeed has only grown more ferocious. He must decide whether he’s willing to make the necessary accommodations to this reality.

If he does, and if he possesses genuine intelligence and talent, which distressingly few such people do, he will make his ascent. Eventually he may hold office himself, or in some other capacity become prominent enough for the newspapers to begin to notice him. At this point, the question of “profile” becomes important. How will he want to be known, described in The Washington Post? With what issues will he seek to identify himself? These must be chosen with care. Nothing too dreamy. The more counterintuitive the better—a Democrat with a passion for defense issues, say, which is what the youngish Al Gore was, or a Republican who seems to care about poverty, which is why Jack Kemp remains so lionized in Washington memory.

He will want to amass friends, of course, on “both sides of the aisle.” He’ll strive to steer clear of fire-breathing partisanship (this is a rule of long standing, although conservatives in particular obey it with less frequency these days). Above all, he must be the type of person who will focus, to reverse the old cliché, on the trees rather than the forest. Washington’s use for big-picture idealists is scant. What this city wants is people who accept bending to the beast’s will.

One might ask why the world needed a memoir from Leon Panetta, the Washington eminence who served most recently as President Obama’s defense secretary. And it must be said that across nearly five hundred pages, he doesn’t demonstrate the need with thundering conviction. For long passages, Worthy Fights is simply a dull book, a victim of the author’s prolixity, or of his assumption that readers are aching to learn the behind-the-scenes details about often mundane bureaucratic decisions on questions ranging from the budget to intelligence.

This assumption appears to derive from the fact that Panetta suffers from no deficit in self-esteem. The book has just started when he stops to inform us that his life, and by implication ours, could have been very different if he’d pursued his first passion, the piano:

When I was about ten years old, I gave a performance at a home in Carmel that the local newspaper covered. “This boy,” the reviewer wrote of me, “possesses a phenomenal musical talent. He played with a depth of feeling and understanding far beyond his years.” Of my interpretive ability, this generous reviewer marked that it was “nothing short of genius.”

He gave it up in high school because he didn’t want to put in the hours: “I liked being with people, not performing for them.” But he leaves the reader with little doubt that at least in his view, had he pursued the musical vocation, we would still be talking and writing about him today.

Panetta’s self-confidence is blunt and seemingly without limits. Check out that subtitle, for starters. It eventually becomes a hindrance to this book—in a fifty-year career, there seems to be almost nothing Leon Panetta got wrong, and after a while, one begins to wonder.

That said, Worthy Fights has its virtues. Panetta’s eye is certainly more for the trees than the forest. But there is a benefit to this: it makes him more an explainer than a lecturer, and this perspective is a useful one to have on recent world events from one who was in the room at so many pivotal moments, notably the killing of Osama bin Laden. Panetta was rebuked by the White House and some liberal commentators when this book came out, because of its timing—the fact that he didn’t wait until the administration he served was out of office—and because of his criticisms of Obama. Those criticisms were obviously designed to be the book’s “news” and help sell it, but in fact they are few and relatively mild and not even newsworthy except for the fact that it’s Leon Panetta who’s making them.


And with regard to at least one of these charges, Panetta’s disapprobation is in my opinion correct. It was a horrible error, perhaps the worst of his presidency, for Obama to announce that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in Syria would constitute a “red line,” which clearly implies a threat of direct response, and then not act. Instead Obama vacillated, finally kicking the matter to Congress in 2013 after the use of such weapons was revealed. As Panetta writes, Obama “well knew” that doing that was “an almost certain way to scotch any action”; he was lucky that Vladimir Putin put pressure on Assad to give up the weapons.

So the book is not without merit in ways the author intends. There is considerable honor in the way Panetta has served. But the book’s greatest value is the picture it gives of the world of Washington eminenceness and how one gets there.

Panetta was born in Monterey, California, in 1938, into the heart of Steinbeck’s America of proletarian strain and sweat, though rather than working in the local cannery, Panetta’s Italian-immigrant parents ran a restaurant. Like most immigrants of the era, they worked long hours, and they loved America, to such an extent that they apparently were not much upset when Leon’s grandfather, who had come from Italy for a visit and been stranded in the US after the outbreak of war, was forced to leave Monterey for San Jose after the government prohibited some ten thousand Italians from living in certain parts of the West Coast. “To be free,” Panetta quotes his father as having often said, “we must also be secure.”

Young Leon went to Santa Clara University, joined the ROTC, and became a Republican, identifying with the fiscal conservatism and social liberalism of figures like Dwight Eisenhower and Earl Warren. He voted for Richard Nixon over Jack Kennedy, his fellow Catholic, in 1960. He married, finished law school, and after graduation shipped out to fulfill his military service. By 1966, he developed an itch to come to Washington. He wrote a letter to Joseph Califano, then President Johnson’s top domestic aide, and Califano, somewhat surprisingly, wrote his fellow Italian-American back offering to help make introductions. In short order, Panetta landed a job on the staff of the California moderate Republican senator Thomas Kuchel.

Anyone saddened by what’s happened to Washington over the past twenty years can’t help but be affected by Panetta’s portrait of the Washington of his youth. He is seventy-six, and is thus one of the last products of his era who may serve this country in high public office. With all its faults, it was a better time, when a group of men (and a handful of women) who had known the Depression and war had a more serious notion of the responsibilities of public service than we see in most legislators today.

Panetta’s mentor Kuchel was a model of this civic probity, a liberal Republican who was proud to support civil rights and buck his party when it mattered. He had refused to endorse Nixon for governor in 1962, Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, or Ronald Reagan for governor in 1966. The John Birch Society came after him, and conservatives found someone to challenge him in the 1968 GOP primary, a state official named Max Rafferty. On primary night, they gathered in Los Angeles to follow the returns. When San Diego came in for Rafferty, they knew Kuchel had lost. Panetta, who revered his boss, was devastated.

Panetta next landed in President Nixon’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, as it was then called; his job was to oversee desegregation of southern schools, which, after the Brown decision, had not been desegregated in the states that fought desegregation orders with ferocity. His enthusiasm for this task, great at first, diminished considerably when it finally dawned on him that the Nixon White House hadn’t the slightest intention of forcing southern schools to integrate. Before long his objections became public, and Panetta was fired. The controversy was big enough for Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, to say something about it at his podium. Panetta then served a short, odd stint in New York as an executive assistant to John Lindsay, thinking at first that Lindsay might be a Republican president someday and seeing quickly that his initial assessment might have been optimistic.

When that ended, he headed back to Monterey and got himself elected to Congress. By now, he was a Democrat, having switched in 1972 because of the GOP’s increasing conservatism.

Panetta began his rise through the congressional ranks at just the moment that budget deficits first became an issue in Washington, with Jimmy Carter’s modest deficits and then Ronald Reagan’s huge ones. Panetta got himself a seat on the House Budget Committee in part to deal with the issue. He was a standard-issue liberal on most cultural and social questions, but he chose to emphasize the fiscal issues on which he was often at odds with his party. So it was in those early Reagan years that he made his reputation as a deficit hawk, the leading Democratic enforcer of making Congress live within the budgets it passed. He did so through his position as the chairman of the House Budget Committee’s subcommittee on “reconciliation,”1 a position that gave him enormous power to cut budgets.


Panetta carried this reputation across the 1980s and into the next decade, when Bill Clinton chose him to head the Office of Management and Budget. Panetta is happy to be identified with the Clinton administration’s more conservative wing:

Taken together, then, Clinton’s selections of [Lloyd] Bentsen, [Robert] Rubin, and me signaled that his approach to this presidency—at least in its approach to budgets and spending—was indeed going to be a departure from Democratic orthodoxy. In fact, some of the early reaction to our appointments was praise—from Republicans.

As a Democrat who cared about the deficit—a pleasingly counterintuitive type—Panetta was practically a bullet-proof figure in Clinton’s Washington. In 1994 a long profile of him in National Journal did not contain a single critical sentence; he was praised for his sharp intellect, his talent for bipartisan bonhomie, and the fiscal discipline he was imposing on a White House that showed an inclination to slip into excess.2


Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton at the Pentagon, February 2013

Worthy Fights recounts the major moments of the Clinton era, first from his perspective as budget director and then as chief of staff, a position he held from 1994 to 1997. Panetta was part of the right-thinking cohort that opposed efforts like Hillary Clinton’s health care reform. Nevertheless, he liked Bill Clinton and admired his voracious hunger for details about policy. And he quite accurately singles out Newt Gingrich, whose rise came “at the expense of working relations in Washington,” as being personally responsible for much of the bitter polarization that has divided the capital. After Clinton won reelection, and Panetta was at the top of his game inasmuch as he was broadly credited with having brought discipline to an unruly White House, he resigned and headed back to his walnut trees in the Carmel Valley, where he and his wife lived (and still live) in the house his father built.

The first job President-elect Obama dangled before Panetta was chief of staff, but Panetta said no, he’d been there. He was surprised, some weeks later, to get a call from the man who’d taken that job, Rahm Emanuel, and sounded out about his interest in running the CIA. Panetta observed that he was a numbers guy. Emanuel “acknowledged that it was unconventional, but said that Obama was convinced the CIA needed to regain credibility lost in the Bush years.”

Panetta was briefed by his predecessor, Michael Hayden, who told him that the CIA director’s role in the post–September 11 era was to be “the combatant commander in the war on terrorism.” Each morning, he got into his waiting SUV at 7:00 AM and opened the binder that had been placed on the seat next to his and that contained “twenty to thirty pieces of raw traffic,” intelligence reports from around the world. At 7:30, he ran the morning intelligence briefing.

An early disagreement with the White House involved the release of interrogation memos from the Bush era. Initially, Panetta, perhaps following his more liberal instincts, had no objection to the release. But the career people at Langley felt otherwise. Ultimately, they persuaded him that certain “agency methods and operational details” would be revealed, and that it “was unfair to our officers to expose these methods; the officers who had applied the techniques had done so only after being assured that they were legal.” Ultimately Obama did decide to release the memos, but Panetta writes that he was satisfied that the president did so in such a way as “to avoid jeopardizing his relationship with the CIA.”

We are treated to the occasional amusing glimpse into a world we seldom get to see, such as this little vignette from the North and South Korean borders:

At Panmunjom, there is a row of buildings used for the rare talks between North and South. One straddles the border itself, with a line running down a square table to mark the actual boundary. We entered, and for a moment I crossed the line, putting a toe into North Korea. As I did, guards outside on the North Korean side of the border pressed against the windows, menacingly glowering and brandishing their weapons.

Most of the chapters on the CIA are taken up with the task of finding various members of al-Qaeda and its offshoots. In some of these stories, Panetta adds little to the existing public record, but just as the book begins to drag again, we reach the chapter on killing bin Laden, which I found absolutely fascinating.

Bush had downgraded the priority of searching for bin Laden. Obama elevated it, and so tracking him down was Panetta’s and the agency’s top job. In 2007, the agency had learned the name of a courier to bin Laden, but the trail went cold for three years until an agent tracked the courier “to a dead-end street on the outskirts of Abbottabad,” where the agent found what he called a “fortress” with high walls. From that day on, operatives were assigned to learn everything they could about the fortress and what went on there. Every so often, a man would “emerge from the house and rapidly pace around the compound, not so much strolling as seeming to quickly try to get a little exercise.” At Langley, they called him “the Pacer.”

What followed was a nearly year-long effort to determine whether bin Laden was living in the compound, and if he was, how they might get him. On the very day of the raid, they still did not know for sure that bin Laden lived there. But the agency, and Obama, thought the odds were strong enough that they shouldn’t pass up the chance.

As for Obama, he comes off exceedingly well in this chapter. Once the CIA decided to recommend a strike to the president, there was the question of what form it should take. A number of options were presented to Obama. Some involved working with the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, in the interest of not violating an ally’s airspace without its knowledge. Obama ruled those out instantly, expecting (we must presume correctly) that the ISI would have tipped off bin Laden.

In the end, the options boiled down to two: bomb the place to rubble or carry out a SEAL raid. At first, Obama wanted to bomb—at least the planes would be able to get out of Pakistani airspace in a matter of minutes. But if bin Laden were blown to bits, the United States would have to depend on the ISI to match his DNA with the CIA’s sample, and no one expected that it would cooperate in that task. So Obama chose the much riskier SEAL raid. Rehearsals commenced. On April 19, 2011, Obama reviewed them. One decision he made that day is arguably his most important as president:

He was as impressed as the rest of us, but worried about what might happen if the teams were caught on the ground and had to fight their way out of the country. Based on those concerns, which Bob Gates echoed, the president suggested adding two backup helicopters to the mission.

The raid finally happened on Sunday, May 1, with the principals in that now-famous photograph gathered in the White House Situation Room. The helicopters touched down on time, and “within seconds, things began to go wrong.” The rotors on the first helicopter stopped turning. But the SEALs got to the “objective,” and the mission went on.

One SEAL was charged with herding the children off to a side room to ensure their safety, another with standing near the gates and discouraging the neighbors from getting too curious. When other SEALs reached the compound’s third floor, they found bin Laden and shot him. The corpse was swabbed for DNA. The SEALs wanted to measure it to make sure it was around six feet, five inches, bin Laden’s height, but they forgot to bring a tape measure. The DNA, however, was confirmed within hours. The body was taken out to sea, given Muslim last rites, and dumped.

Without the backup Chinook helicopters, the raid might have failed, and if it had failed, the United States would have suffered a major humiliation, and Obama probably never would have recovered politically. And yet, Americans still don’t know about Obama and the helicopters. Something tells me that if George W. Bush had approved this raid and suggested the backup helicopters that saved it, we would have known about it instantly.

Finally, when we move to Panetta’s Pentagon years, Afghanistan and Iraq are frequent topics, as is the budget. After September 11, the Pentagon budget went from $287 billion to $718 billion (that’s $2 billion a day). The pressure—more from the Tea Party right than the dovish left—to cut spending became intense.

But the most controversial matter with which Panetta dealt was, of course, the drone program. In a section that covers nearly five pages, Panetta acknowledges that the use of drones “provokes strong feelings and strenuous debate.” But most of the section consists of a defense of the program: that drones produce far fewer casualties than regular bombs, that great care is taken to reduce the number of civilian casualties, that they (and the secrecy that surrounds their use) are a necessary tool for fighting terrorism. They are even, he asserts, a moral program:

[Drones’] precision can be chilling, but surely it is more desirable to kill a single terrorist than to eliminate him by wiping out an entire village. All of which argues not only for the effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles but also for their morality.

Panetta does not really examine the controversy from the point of view of Pakistanis or Yemenis who live with the strikes, nor does he discuss tragedies like the December 2013 attack (after his tenure) that killed twelve Yemenis on their way to a wedding. How, the reader may ask, can he grapple with the morality of drones, and the damage these incidents do to the credibility and reputation abroad of the very department Panetta headed, if he does not address the reactions of the people affected?

On budgetary matters, Panetta is critical of both Congress and Obama, the former for its inability to agree to sensible reductions, which forced across-the-board cuts that gave the Pentagon no chance to impose priorities, and the latter for keeping his cabinet officers in the dark and concentrating too much decision-making power in the White House. In the end, though, Panetta praises Obama more than he criticizes him, finding him engaged and thoughtful about how the Pentagon should restructure itself following some $500 billion in cuts (over ten years).

“What’s called for today,” Panetta concludes, “is what we once knew as leadership. Far-sighted, goal-oriented, sustained leadership reconstructed Europe after World War II and built the interstate highway system.” This rings true. But it is also true, as Panetta does not acknowledge, that today’s Republican Party would have voted against the European Recovery Program and the Federal Aid Highway Act. And it is also true that the Marshall Plan and the interstate highway system were the byproducts of a consensus on a philosophy of government in which brute partisanship must be limited in order to achieve a common good. The United States will not be able to accomplish things like that again until such a philosophy can be resuscitated.

Panetta seems to view such considerations as above his pay grade. His idea of politics is essentially instrumental and technocratic. That’s the outlook required to be able to hop from Congress to the budget office to the White House to the CIA to the Pentagon and succeed at each (and become an eminence). Washington will always need such people, but these days it needs much more than that.