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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Leon Panetta Scorches Obama, Praises Rahm in New Memoir

The President’s former CIA director and Secretary of Defense has harsh words for his leadership—but he remains an admirer of the city’s mayor.

Leon Panetta and his wife, Sylvia in 2009  Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

I knew that Leon Panetta—former nine-term congressman from Monterey, California, Clinton’s budget director and Chief of Staff, Obama’s CIA director and defense secretary—was a straight talker.  When I interviewed him in 2006 for my book about Bill Clinton’s post presidency, he was remarkably candid about Clinton’s adolescent failings: lack of discipline, procrastination, bad habits, “haphazard schedule,” and strings of nights with just a few hours sleep because he was busy playing Hearts or watching TV.

In his memoir, out today, Panetta shows himself to be a straight writer as well. (The book carries the name of cowriter Jim Newton.) 

Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in  War and Peace contains a surprisingly harsh assessment of President Obama, whom Panetta describes as having “lost his way,” particularly on foreign policy. Panetta notes Obama’s weak leadership, “reticence to engage his opponents,” ignoring his own chemical-weapons “red line” in Syria, neglecting to arm the Syrian rebels, and failing to push hard enough for a residual force in Iraq. The result, writes Panetta, is the horror of ISIS. Panetta’s memoir is so harsh in places that it makes Bob Gates’ memoir, released earlier this year—Gates was Panetta’s predecessor as secretary of defense—look somewhat milder in its takedown of Obama as Commander in Chief.

Only one Chicagoan makes the cut in Panetta’s book, and that’s our own Rahm Emanuel.  Panetta met Rahm early in the first Clinton administration; an acquaintance turned to friendship over the course of their service in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses.

Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants, describes Rahm, early in the Clinton first term, as a “backbencher” who rarely spoke but, when he did, impressed Panetta with his “forcefulness and incisiveness.” Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff, depicts both Bill and Hillary as “wary of [Rahm],” in part because Bob Woodward’s book about the Clinton administration’s budget deliberations was so full of details of what the rookie president thought were private deliberations. Clinton suspected then-staffer George Stephanopoulos or Rahm Emanuel of leaking to Woodward. He asked Panetta to fire them both, but Panetta “pushed back, insisting that they deserved another chance.” 

Panetta obviously just plain likes Rahm: “I enjoyed his facility with profanity. I pride myself in the felicitous use of the occasional four-letter word, but I was an amateur compared to Rahm.” Panetta particularly admired the brass nameplate in Rahm’s White House office, which looked official until one took a second look: “Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself.”

He also liked Rahm’s centrist politics, like his support of NAFTA and welfare reform during the Clinton years; one wouldn’t know that today as Rahm struggles to appease African-Americans and white progressives en route to the mayoral election next February.  

When Panetta was proposed as Obama’s director of the CIA, many—but not Rahm—thought he was a weak choice because he lacked professional experience in the intelligence arena. Michael Hayden, George W. Bush’s head of the CIA, was insulted, Panetta writes, especially because Hayden would have preferred to stay on as CIA chief: “Privately, he derided my nomination, referring to me as `Rahm Emanuel’s goombah.’”

Panetta describes Rahm in action with a subtlety that seems just about right to a Rahm-watcher like me. While heading the CIA, Panetta forged a deal to allow staffers to Sen. Diane Feinstein to go to a secure room in Virginia to review hundreds of thousands of documents related to “Bush-era interrogation policies.” Obama was furiously opposed to allowing access to the documents, and, Panetta writes, “I [along with `about a dozen’CIA staffers] was summoned down to a meeting in the situation room, where I was told I would have to `explain’ this deal to Rahm…. `The president wants to know who the fuck authorized this release to the committee,’ Rahm said, slamming his hand down on the table. `I have a president with his hair on fire, and I want to know what the fuck you did to fuck this up so bad!’  I’d know Rahm a long time, and I was no stranger to his language or his temper, so I knew when to worry about an outburst and when it was mostly for show. On this occasion my hunch was that Rahm wasn’t that perturbed, but that Obama probably was….”

Leon Panetta will certainly be off the Obama A-list after this book.  As Joe Biden put it the other day, “At least give the guy a chance to get out of office." 

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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