Event Summary by Richard C. Longworth
Leon Panetta, an Italian immigrant’s son who rose to some of the American government’s most powerful positions, looked back over his long career Thursday evening and decided his best job was his first, as a member of Congress.
“I was there when you could get things done,” Panetta said in a public conversation with Chicago Council President Ivo Daalder. “It was tough and challenging, but we did it because we felt a responsibility to the country to resolve these issues. We were trying to improve the lives of people. That’s the purpose of being a member of Congress.”
Panetta spent 16 years, from 1977 to 1993, in the House of Representatives as a Democratic congressman from California. But he has only scorn for the present Congress.
“The major issues facing this country—they’re not going to deal with them.” He listed a litany of inactivity—on budgets, deficits, immigration, energy, infrastructure, health care, trade, even war authority to fight ISIS—and concluded that Congress today is “doing nothing.” There is, in fact, “a sense of giving up.”
Panetta, now 76, was chief of staff to President Clinton, director of the Office of Management and Budget, Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013, as well as director of the CIA. It was under Panetta’s leadership that the agency tracked down Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani hideout, where he was later killed by a team of Navy Seals.
“That sent a message from our country,” Panetta said. “Nobody attacks our country and gets away with it. (The Seals) did a hell of a job.”
In his appearance before a Council audience of 700, Panetta was blunt, funny, profane, the kind of old pol who can tell a cannibal joke (as he did) and get by with it. He exuded both the fierce patriotism of a first-generation American and pride in rising from his father’s California walnut farm (“great practice for dodging nuts in Washington,” he said) to the country’s most powerful positions.
But Panetta remembered his early days in Congress with special pride. Democrat Tip O’Neill and Republican Bob Michel led their parties in the House. “But when it came to major issues facing this country,” he said, “They worked together and expected the members to work together.”
Under the first President Bush and President Clinton, Congress “balanced the damned budget and had a surplus. It’s what you have to do if you were serious about governing this country.”
Not that all members were giants, Panetta said. “You dealt with members who were screwy, but you had to deal with them. There was an electoral cross-section, some smart, some dumb. You dealt with it.”
Nor was the process always pretty. Panetta recalled a Congresswoman who gave him a crucial vote after telling him she had dreamed Jesus had told her to do so. Apparently, Jesus also told her to make sure she got a casino in her district, he said. She got her casino, Panetta got the vote and the public’s business got done.
“What went wrong?” Daalder asked of the present Congress. “What changed?”
Like many analysts, Panetta pinned the blame on the four-year speakership of Newt Gingrich. That’s now exacerbated, he said, by the creation of safe seats through redistricting, the flood of special interest money, and “the media’s sound-bite mentality.”
Daalder asked Panetta what keeps him awake nights now. Quite a lot, Panetta said.
For instance, the combination of terrorism with cyber-attacks—“the battlefield of the future.” Iran, Panetta said, developed a virus that destroyed 30,000 Aramco computers in Saudi Arabia. “My greatest fear is that computer technology like that gets into the hands of terrorists, who don’t even have to come to this country to blow us up,” he said.
Or Iran. “I don’t trust them,” Panetta said. He worries about the current negotiations to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He supports the negotiations but “I get nervous about them maintaining a big chunk of enriched uranium. I’m also nervous about the 10-year limit (on any agreement).
“But if you can get an inspection regime in place and can enforce that, it gives me some comfort,” he said. “Let’s take a deep breath and give the negotiations a chance.”
Or Ukraine and Vladimir Putin. “He is a bully,” he said. “He’ll take advantage of any weakness. We better damn well stop him now, not some time in the future.”
Panetta has been critical of President Obama, but he praised Obama’s decision to kill bin Laden and, more recently, his sanctions against Russia.
Panetta urged even tougher sanctions, in addition to lethal arms for Ukraine, plus “putting missile defense back on the table,” and an end to the ban on American energy exports to help wean our allies off Russian oil.
“We have to make clear to Putin that he is not going to have his way when he decides to invade another country,” Panetta said.
Richard C. Longworth is a distinguished fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Read more of his program summaries and recent publications or follow his blog.
Event Summary by Richard C. Longworth