Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Panetta tells all—well, some—about his life in politics.
“I have talked at length in these pages about wars,” writes the author toward the end. Indeed he has: His time in politics has run from Saigon to Syria, while his recent responsibilities have embraced such diverse matters as helping handle the return of American POW Bowe Bergdahl—a deal, Panetta writes, that he disapproved of—and weathering the David Petraeus affair. The memoir begins along familiar, formulaic lines: son of hardworking immigrants, drawn to office by a sense of “duty to country and a conviction that government could play a constructive role in the life of its citizens,” paying dues under the tough tutelage of Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright, and so on. Panetta is gentle on most of the politicians who have crossed his path, though it’s clear he reserves considerable disdain for former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his “divisive tactics.” It is also clear that the author was at odds with President Barack Obama at many points. Though mildly framed (“achievements cannot allow leaders to become complacent”), his criticism has a bite. Many of the sharpest divergences turn on the question of leaving Iraq: “It was no secret that I had fought to keep it from ending this way,” he writes, and he pursued doing so “with reservations.” Still, Panetta’s criticisms are mild in the context of his overall defense of his former boss: As he writes, he finds it “amusing” that Obama is seen as an ideologue instead of as a “realist and pragmatist” who has overcome unnecessarily staunch opposition to “make important progress in many areas, from fighting terrorism to righting the economy.”
Predictable passages aside, Panetta offers a valuable portrait of how things get done in Washington—cautiously, like this memoir, and with exquisite calculation.