What I’ve Learned: Leon Panetta By Cal Fussman


DeM Banter: interesting interview from Esquire with the SECDEF

January 2013

‘Could I imagine a world without cursing? Hell, no!’

Secretary of Defense, 74, Arlington, Virginia

Panetta served eight terms in Congress and later became President Clinton’s chief of staff. He was director of the CIA from 2009 through 2011, a period that included the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Interviewed November 9, 2012

Italians are romantics, and my mother taught me the value of beauty and the appreciation for life. She really wanted me to be a concert pianist. That’s always been with me, because every time I sit down and play Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, and Schubert, I think of her.

I sat down with the president yesterday, and we were talking about the election. I told him, “What the American people voted for was the fact that they trust your judgment. They don’t always agree with you, but they trust the fact that you’re a straight shooter and that you really do want to do what’s in the interest of the country.” Look, I’ve seen the president in the Situation Room and policy meetings where you really get the sense that the questions he’s asking are never about What’s in the interest of my political ass? It’s: What’s in the interest of the country? And that has always given me a sense of comfort. When a president asks that question, then even though he might come out in the wrong place, even though he might make the wrong decision, he’s got the best measure for how you can best help people.

Life goes on no matter what the hell you do.

What our forefathers put together two hundred years ago is being tested today. Look, in the Defense Department we’ve got great tanks, great planes, great ships, great men and women in uniform. We could fight any battle. But if our institutions of democracy are not working, that is an even greater threat to our national security, because our strength as a nation depends on the willingness of our elected leaders to be able to find the consensus, to make the compromises, and to find solutions to the problems that confront this country. If they can’t do it, if they don’t do it — if they refuse to do that — more than anything else, that weakens us as a country.

The one thing I make pretty good is gnocchi. People have commented on it. I do it for the holidays. So if I were inviting Kim Jong Un over for dinner, I’d make him a plate of gnocchi. We’d have a glass of wine. And basically I’d try to understand: What’s his thinking?

Bill Clinton once taught me something that I never forgot, which was that in foreign policy, the most important thing you can do is show leaders of other countries why it is in their interest, their self-interest, to do the right thing. And if you can make them understand why it’s in their interest, then something clicks — you can get ’em to do what you want. And I think the same thing’s true with a place like North Korea. You gotta listen to what the concerns are. What is he worried about? Why does his country behave like it does? Why does it abuse its people the way it does? What do you gain from that? And then try to make him understand why it’s in the interest of his people to become part of the world community.

One of my biggest bills in this place is fuel cost — especially in the Navy. All of the tanks, all of those trucks, all of the planes that we fly, all of that is dependent on fuel, and when the price of fuel goes up, my costs go up dramatically. So our ability to develop alternative energy and energy independence not only saves money, but it’s an investment in our national security.

Love of family is something that is renewed in me every time I see them.

If you’re not willing to give, and you’re constantly stuck in your own ways or you’re constantly fighting because you wanna do what you wanna do without recognizing what the other person wants, that is probably the quickest way to destroy a marriage.

Bravo was in the room when we were talking about the bin Laden operation at the CIA. I remember going through that whole thing with him sitting by me. And the ability to put my hand on his head and feel his presence just kinda made me feel Okay, this is an important issue and it’s a big issue, but in many ways it’s about whether or not we are able to protect the quality of life that we enjoy, and having a dog there just makes you a little more aware of what life is really about.

Could I imagine a world without cursing? Hell, no! Every place I’ve ever gone, people have had to hold their ears. When I use those words, it helps make the point.

I got my share of A’s. But I like people who work for me to have a certain compassion for their fellow human beings that doesn’t necessarily come with an A, that comes based on your life and how you were raised.

I’m not one who would ever sit in a rocking chair on a porch. That’s just not my nature, and it goes back to my father. My father still ran a tractor when he was in his eighties. He never stopped. There are things, obviously, you’d like to have the time to enjoy, but I always want to be working and able to make a contribution.

One Reply to “What I’ve Learned: Leon Panetta By Cal Fussman”

  1. I wouldn’t mind working for this man. Very interesting perspective, definitely so on the re-election of President Obama. His last point makes the the happiest. You don’t have to be a superstar to be important to an organization.

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