How to Become Eminent in Washington

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…


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