Something's amiss with Leon Panetta. He is a very smart and very careful guy who is making one startling verbal slip after another, everything from chalking up the Iraq War, inexplicably and incorrectly, to al Qaeda's presence in that country, to saying, again mistakenly, that there would be 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He just isn't the guy I met in 1966, when we both worked for moderate Republican senators. This isn't the guy who's watched and balanced his words for more than four decades in politics. Maybe his slips result from this really being the first time in his life that the world's spotlight is directly on him, with reporters and wave makers hanging on his every word. Oftentimes, that propels even the most cautious to spout off. Or possibly it's the pressure from the hard decisions he now faces as Defense secretary, namely America's safe passage out of three wars, to say nothing of the awesome pressures he confronts in cutting military spending.
In 1966, Leon toiled for Senator Thomas Kuchel of California, the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber. I served Senator Jacob Javits from New York. Leon was the son of Italian immigrants; I, the son of Hungarian immigrants. He had been elected president of his high school in Monterey, while I lost the election at New Rochelle High (though my slogan “Get more with Les” should have been irresistible).
Leon was a natural politician—and yet something much different and surprising. He always had the political impulse to seek the middle ground. That was most comfortable for him intellectually and the safest course with his various constituencies. In his congressional career, which began in 1977, he took very strong positions on environmental issues like protecting the oceans, but otherwise swam under the ideological radar. At the same time, and quite surprisingly, he was made of real executive steel. He ran the House Budget Committee with an iron hand, and later demonstrated the same spine as director of OMB and chief of staff for President Clinton. It seemed that when he was one of many, as in Congress or in various prestigious groups, he played for consensus. But when he was given top executive responsibility, he did whatever was necessary. Regardless of what role he found himself in, however, he very rarely made any verbal slips that either he or his staff needed to sweep up.