Leon Panetta and the art of the elliptical answer


    Somewhere between The O’Reilly Factor and Face the Nation, media-touring book-flacking Leon Panetta wound up with the likes of me. We talked on stage Friday night at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and I can personally vouch for how tough it can be to pin down a seasoned Washington player.

    I say that with respect for his creds and his down-to-earth charm. But, as I said in Friday’s post about his memoir, Worthy Fights, which takes some withering shots at former boss Barack Obama, Panetta has sparked controversy about his message, motives, and timing. So I duly asked several skeptical questions; he duly exhibited his mastery of the elliptical answer. Actually, he didn’t seem so elliptical at the time. The vibe in the auditorium was genial, and it was my job to keep it that way. Only later, when listening to the audio, did I hear how he had rhetorically circled the Beltway.

    Here’s how he did it, virtually verbatim. Watch for my numbered footnotes (same way I annotated GOP chairman Reince Priebus last week):

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    There’s a book passage where Panetta assails his old boss for failing “to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” I then asked the ex-Defense Secretary, “How much do the Republicans also bear responsibility” – given the fact that, since Day One, they’ve opposed everything? In effect, I was asking: Doesn’t it take two to tango? Given the GOP’s hard-wired hatred, what more could he possibly be doing to engage?

    Most of Panetta’s five-minute answer:

    “This would be a tough period for any president to try to deal with this Congress. There’s no question that on the Republican side, particularly with tea-party members, there are individuals that really don’t care if government works or not, they’re interested in tearing government down. And so they represent some very serious opposition to almost everything the president wants to do. (1) But I think it’s important that you can’t give up fighting for what you want to achieve. You can’t give up the effort to keep pushing people (2).

    “Look, governing is tough. You have to deal with people you don’t like (3). It’s the nature of our democracy, a cross-section of people from across the country. Some are honest, some are dishonest, some are smart, some are dumb, some people want to do the right thing, some peole don’t care. It’s that kind of situation. And so you can’t just pull back and say, ‘They’re all crazy, so therefore I’m gonna give up.’ The reality that concerns me is that there’s a certain sense that, because it’s so fractious. and you can’t get things done, that you kind of give up. And so, you don’t go for a budget deal. You don’t go for immigration reform (4). You don’t do infrastructure funding, or energy. You just stand back, ‘We can’t agree, so the hell with it.’

    “And I think that’s dangerous. That’s the kind of mentality that says, ‘This democracy is in total stalemate at a time when we need to deal with critical issues.’ So my argument is that the president, as frustrated as he is – he’s the kind of individual who really believes that if you present a well-thought out position that’s in the interests of the country, that people will embrace that. (But) Washington doesn’t operate on logic. Washington is an operation where you gotta roll up your sleeves and go after every vote and engage with people in order to convince them to do the right thing. Like in the movie Lincoln, where, to pass the 13th Amendment (ending slavery), he went after every vote – to even buy votes.” (5)

    Panetta then told a story (too long to recount here) about how, when he was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, he tried cajole a Detroit congresswoman to vote Yes on a bill; she was amenable, but first she wanted to get a casino for her district. Later, in a different deal, “she got the casino.” (6) The point is, “That’s the process, it’s not clean and it’s not nice. I want this president to be successful these next two years, he could have a helluva legacy. But it’s going to require him to get into the ring and to fight with these people and make them work together to get it done.” (7)

    OK, here we go:

    (1) Sounds like he’s conceding something. On the other hand, you know that a “But” is coming.

    (2) So how, specifically, can Obama “push” the Republican House – most of whose members are cocooned in safe red districts, where the biggest threats come from right-wing challengers who won’t abide any gesture of working with this president?

    (3) Tell that line to the Republicans. They decided – literally on Day One – that they disliked Obama so much, they vowed not to do business with him. As political writer Robert Draper disclosed in his book Do Not Ask What We Do, key congressional Republicans met on Inauguration Night ’09 and pledged “united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies.” This was when America was in the depths of the Bush depression, and needed all hands on deck. But even then, the GOP’s top priority was to make Obama a one-termer. As Newt Gingrich, a dinner participant, said to his allies that night, “You will remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”

    (4) How, pray tell, would Panetta suggest that Obama pry immigration reform out of the Republican House, which is beholden to the restrictionist conservative base?

    (5) If Obama ever tried to do anything remotely like Lincoln did – buying off lawmakers by promising to give them federal jobs – he would be roasted on social media and it would drive the news cycle for a week.

    (6) This was known as an “earmark,” or “pork.” Earmarks have been phased out. Presidents used to wield earmarks as leverage. They don’t have that leverage anymore.

    (7) Again, “make them work together” how?

    My follow-up question was about the timing of his Obama critique.  It has landed in the midst of the midterm season, with Republicans jonesing to take the Senate. I pointed out that Republicans, rather than offer their own attacks on Obama, have begun to quote him. So I asked Panetta: Wasn’t he playing into the GOP’s anti-Obama message – “feeding their narrative, to the president’s detriment?”

    Stay with me. This answer was shorter:

    “Look, Winston Churchill said, ‘Criticism is not agreeable, but it is necessary.’ (1) It’s a bit like dealing with pain in the human body. What the pain does is tell you that there is something unhealthy going on in the body. And what’s happening now is, there’s something going on that’s unhealthy in Washington, in terms of its ability to function. It’s important for us to talk about that….to say, ‘Wait a minute, things have to change, we have to learn how to govern.’ There has to be a debate about you vote for who intends to govern – not just to have an ideological position, but who is willing to govern (2).

    “We’ve got to be willing to open that process (3) and have that debate. Look, I know. Politics is always part of the process, I understand that. But that’s no excuse not to open up the debate.”


    (1) Winston Churchill said a lot of things. He also famously said, “Politics are very much like war. We may even have to use poison gas at times.” Meaning, he was a seasoned partisan who understood that firing on your own side in the middle of an election season was probably unwise, and certainly ill-timed.

    (2) Oh please. Name me a single Republican, particularly on the House side, who is campaigning this fall on a pledge to break bread with Obama and govern.

    (3) By opening up that process in the midst of a midterm season, he feeds the Republican narrative and potentially hikes the odds of a full GOP takeover on Capitol Hill – which will only further impair Washington’s “ability to function,” the very thing Panetta rightly laments most.

    On a lighter note, I did ask the former CIA chief whether he watches Homeland. How could he not, right? But he said no, he watches Downton Abbey. Ah. Nothing elliptical about that answer.

    Or was there?


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


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