Once upon a time, in a less buzz-driven Washington, it was unthinkable that a top presidential advisor would dish in print about the boss while the boss still sat in the White House. Such behavior would’ve been condemned as a breach of ethics, an act of disloyalty.
But not in this era. Insiders’ memoirs – all of which could probably be titled If Only He Had Listened To Me – are a veritable genre. The press loves them because they’re often buzzworthy. Publishers love them because, every so often, they generate big revenue. And presidents on the receiving end typiclally hate them, for reasons that should be self-evident.
A decade ago, when former Bush insiders Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill were skewering George W. in their memoirs, I had a long conversation about the genre with Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar who had worked “as a young pup” in the Eisenhower administration. He told me, “The old standard was that an adviser should have a passion for anonymity. In those days, we were all namless people. We thought (that kind of memoir) would be in bad form. That just shows you how far we’ve come.”
A decade later, Hess is still upset – and this time, his target is Leon Panetta.
As you probably know, Leon Panetta, who served President Obama as CIA director and Pentagon chief, has spent the past several weeks cutting a swath through the broadcast media in order to promote his memoir Worthy Fights, in which he bangs Obama as a cerebral wuss (the president too often relies “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader”). The White House is predictably furious; Republicans are predictably joyous.
But Hess, still an alum of the old school, says: “I can’t get over it. I can’t believe this is the Leon I’ve known since 1969. It struck me as so inappropriate to say those things about your president, who has been kind and good and considerate to you….I don’t understand it at all.”
Actually, it’s easy to understand: Loyalty is no longer the guiding principle. If it was, O’Neill, Clarke and Scott McClellan wouldn’t have dished on Bush while he was still serving. George Stephanopoulos, Robert Reich, and Dick Morris wouldn’t have dished on Bill Clinton while Clinton was still serving. Donald Regan, Larry Speakes, and Alexander Haig (among others) wouldn’t have dished in Ronald Reagan while he was still serving.
These authors typically insist that their consciences compelled them to speak out – for the president’s sake, and for the greater good. Indeed, when CBS News host Charlie Rose asked Panetta the other day whether he’s being disloyal, Panetta replied: “You know what? It’s exactly because I am very loyal to this president and because I want him to succeed that I think it’s important to raise these issues now.”
Where you stand on this issue – loyalty versus conscience – probably depends on how you feel about Panetta’s dish. Panetta’s basic argument, in interviews and in the final chapters of his memoir, is that Obama has made things worse in the Middle East because he has been too indecisive. This feeds the Republican midterm narrative so beautifully, that all Republicans need do is quote Panetta. None have accused Panetta of disloyalty. They love what he saying; any ethical issues are immaterial.
Naturally, Obama loyalists see things in reverse. The fact that it’s Panetta stings deeply. In D.C. parlance, he has “street cred” because of his status as a seasoned Democratic eminence (nine terms in the House, Clinton budget director, Clinton chief of staff, in addition to CIA and Defense). The White House has stayed silent – it doesn’t want to further fuel the Panetta story with a public spat – but minions like Bill Burton are voicing their disdain.
Burton, an ex-deputy White House press secretary, said on CNN the other day that Panetta has enjoyed “a long and storied career…and it’s kind of sad that in its twilight, he’s done such a dishonorable thing by going after the president he served” with “small and petty criticisms.”
But what about Panetta’s criticisms? Are they “small and petty,” or so substantive that we need to hear them? Panetta’s defenders – including a fair number of Democrats who won’t talk publicly – would argue that the loyalty issue is secondary to the national interest. Panetta argues in his book that our interests have been ill-served in the Middle East, that Iraq and Syria would not be as much of a mess – and ISIS would be less of a threat – if only Obama had kept lots of residual troops in Iraq and had agreed to arm the “moderate” Syrian rebels. Panetta says he argued in vain for both hawkish positions.
OK, this is where things get murky. We don’t know if those moves would’ve made things better, and the White House is quietly pushing back by circulating old Panetta statements that suggest he was less hawkishly outspoken as Defense secretary than he is now as a retiree. Obama loyalists say that Panetta, unlike Hillary Clinton, didn’t agitate for arming the Syrian rebels, and didn’t push for Obama to leave lots of troops in Iraq. (Panetta in ’11 Senate testimony: “Iraq no longer needs large numbers of U.S. forces to maintain internal stability….This is not about us telling them what we are going to do…”)
I plan to ask Panetta about all this stuff, when I interview him on stage tonight at the Philadelphia Free Library (in-house simulcast seats still available). I might turn his responses into a Monday post, if only to help me hone my thoughts about loyalty-versus-conscience. But for now, two things are abundantly clear:
1. For Obama, the political optics of this story are terrible.
2. Kiss-and-tell memoirs were a lot more fun back when Dick Morris was dishing about the time he and Bill Clinton had a fight on the kitchen floor.
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