Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton: It's Complicated

Reporters have focused on how the former defense secretary's memoir praises her and criticizes the president. The book itself tells a different story.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

I’m thinking of teaching my journalism students about Leon Panetta’s book tour—as a case study in how to game the press.

Since Worthy Fights came out a couple of weeks ago, the headlines have been largely consistent: Hillary Clinton is terrific; Barack Obama, not so much. Panetta launched this meme with a couple of choice sentences in the book itself. Hillary, he wrote, “was a luminous representative for the United States in every foreign capital, as well as a smart, forceful advocate in meetings of the president’s top advisers.” Obama, by contrast, “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”

Since then, the former defense secretary has repeatedly stoked the fire by telling interviewers things like: “These last two years, I think he [Obama] kind of lost his way.” “Barack Obama does not like that process of engaging in politics, and I think that hurts his presidency.” And, most recently, Hillary Clinton “is somebody that I’ve seen who’s dedicated to this country. She’s smart, she’s experienced, and she’s tough. What the hell else do you want?” in a president.

It all makes for a pretty tidy narrative, unless you actually read the book. That’s because Worthy Fights itself offers little specific evidence of Clinton’s smarts, toughness, or luminosity as secretary of state. Panetta notes that they agreed about (1) sending more troops to Afghanistan in 2009, (2) launching the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, (3) not swapping Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, and (4) arming Syria’s rebels.

Decision No. 2 looks good in retrospect. Decision No. 1 doesn’t, given what a mess Afghanistan remains. Decisions Nos. 3 and 4 remain arguable, at least to me. Either way, Panetta’s brief acknowledgment that on certain issues he and Clinton agreed—without virtually any details about the way she argued her case inside the administration, the way she swayed foreign leaders and publics to America’s side or the way she viewed the world—hardly substantiates the over-the-top adjectives he showers on her.

When it comes to Clinton’s time as first lady, the incongruity grows even greater. As Panetta notes gingerly in Worthy Fights, he and Hillary disagreed on the two most important economic questions of Bill Clinton’s first term: whether to prioritize reducing the budget deficit or stimulating the economy, and how hard to push for health-care reform.

As budget director and then White House chief of staff, Panetta was among the Clinton administration’s staunchest deficit hawks. Hillary, by contrast, “picked at our economic program, asking why there wasn’t more room for health care reform and other initiatives” that Panetta considered too costly. Once Clinton’s first budget passed, Panetta “thought we should move welfare first” while “Hillary demanded that we … not relegate health care to the back burner again.” Throughout the health-care fight, Panetta acknowledges, he and the first lady “were on opposite sides” and “she vented her frustration about me.” For his part, Panetta calls the “health care team” that Hillary led “painfully naïve about politics.”

Panetta’s description of his tangles with Clinton over domestic policy in the White House years are actually more detailed than his description of their agreements on foreign policy in the Obama years. What’s more, the historical verdict is far clearer. It is now Beltway conventional wisdom that the Clinton administration’s decision to emphasize deficit reduction in its initial budget helped pave the way for the economic boom of the late 1990s and restored the Democratic Party’s reputation for fiscal responsibility. It’s also conventional wisdom that the administration’s decision to push for health-care reform rather than welfare reform in 1994 undermined Bill Clinton’s centrist reputation and helped enable the Gingrich takeover of Congress that fall.

Given that Hillary Clinton’s role in the push for health-care reform remains the most significant domestic-policy episode of her career, one might have thought it would inform Panetta’s judgment of her. But he never factors it into his overall assessment of Hillary’s presidential fitness—either in the book or the book tour. And as a result, the press has ignored Panetta’s description of the episode almost entirely.

You can’t blame Panetta too much for this. Like most former administration officials, he’s trying to both vindicate his own actions and stay on the right side of powerful people (which means Hillary, the prospective president, more than Obama, the soon-to-be-former one).

Under normal circumstances, it would be a tricky balance. But it’s a lot easier when so many in the media feel entitled to sum up a book they haven’t actually read it.