Et Tu, Leon?

So let’s say you’re a former congressman, CIA director and Secretary of Defense. You (and probably a ghost or two) have been noodling with a memoir for a long time. You’re finally out of office and want to make some dough and remind people you’re still a big deal. You know that in the heat of a midterm election that’s supposed to be a “referendum” on your former boss, and with much of the world focused on U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East, you can get a lot of attention and sell a lot of books by biting the hand that fed you and criticizing the president. Do you hold back for a while until said president is out of office, as Vice President Joe Biden suggested everyone should do? Or do you cash right in?

Well, we know Leon Panetta decided to cash right in. He didn’t go far out of his way to advertise his book as a devastating expose of a weak and America-endangering president, but he’s doing interviews that lend themselves to the impression that he thinks Obama erred grieveously by failing to leave combat troops in Iraq and fight for higher defense spending. And thus, as WaPo’s Dana Milbank points out in a column that excoriates Panetta for “stunning disloyalty” to Obama, his book was seized upon immediately by Republicans–notably Bobby Jindal, who was doing a big Let’s Give the Pentagon A Lot More Money speech the day before the book came out–as evidence of their national security case against the 44th president.

Now as Milbank admits, Panetta (like Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton before him) probably thinks of his service to the current administration as just the capstone of a career that was in full flower when Barack Obama was still in middle school. As it happens, Panetta is treated like a living deity out here on the Central Coast, which he used to represent in Congress. But his current work revolves around the Leon Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which mainly hosts lectures and seminars featuring big-name has-been Beltway Movers and Shakers who engage in Bipartisan Discussions of the Issues of the Day. I suppose a little extra street cred from Republicans owing to book tour interviews that sadly dismiss Barack Obama as out of his league doesn’t hurt this post-political legacy-building.

I doubt I’ll actually read Panetta’s book, but those who do can perhaps check my impression that Leon went deeply native at the Pentagon and continued the deplorable tradition of Secretaries of Defense who just can’t stop rattling the cup for more money for the ravening beast. If so, I suppose his current carping is in the bipartisan tradition of those who feel ungrateful besmirching of a presidency is a mere patriotic duty to ensure no occupant of that office forgets his extraconstitutional duty to the Empire.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.