Immaculate Criticism: The Beltway Hops Aboard Leon Panetta’s Book Tour

Immaculate Criticism: The Beltway Hops Aboard Leon Panetta’s Book Tour

Immaculate Criticism: The Beltway Hops Aboard Leon Panetta’s Book Tour

Eric on The New Yorker Festival and Reed on the lazy Beltway boosterism of Leon Panetta's new book.


Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Katrina and I did a long interview with Jackson Browne before his two terrific shows at the Beacon last week, which you can find here.

The New Yorker Festival, 2014

Once upon a time I got invited to speak at New Yorker Festivals and hence was invited to whatever else I wanted to see. Now, having fallen down in the world, have to promise to write about them here and sometimes I even have to ask really nicely. But it’s worth it. This year’s festival—the 15th—was really great. Here’s what I saw:

Susan Morrison interviewed Randy Newman at the Gramercy Theatre early Friday evening. It was an incredibly warm and interesting interview. Randy was incredibly touched by the appreciation shown to him by the audience and he played and sang for 45 minutes after the interview, including a funny/brilliant song about Mr. and Mrs. Putin. I got to talk to Randy at the party the next night and tell him fan-like stuff, which I hate to do, but could not help it. (He wrote my yearbook quote; I took my mom to see him in 1975.) And he was incredibly gracious. I asked him who’s done his favorite interpretation of his work and he said Nina Simone.

David Remnick interviewed David Chase, Junot Diaz, and Sam Lipsyte about New Jersey. This started at 10, and I was already pretty tired so I didn’t stay that long. I realized I didn’t really give a shit about New Jersey. One funny thing that happened was when Remnick tried to get Lipsyte to talk about Philip Roth and Lipsyte answered by talking about Bruce Springsteen. Also, Chase was pretty moving talking about his parents, but again, interesting guys, boring topic.

David Remnick interviewed Larry David. This was really great and everybody there had a great time. Fortunately, the New Yorker had Alexandra Schwartz write it up, so I don’t really have to. Highlights:

1. “David was expelled from Hebrew school for acting out, though he barely got the chance to enjoy his freedom before the rabbi, like Pharaoh, changed his mind: ‘My mother went to the school and blew him, I think, because they took me back two days later.’”

 2. “After college, David worked as a chauffeur for an elderly woman with impaired vision (career advice: ‘I can’t say enough about a blind boss’) and as a bra salesman.” (I am skipping all the Seinfeld stuff because I never really could stand the thing.)

3. “‘It occurred to me one day, Would I have sex with a Palestinian?’ he told Remnick. ‘I thought, Sure. And what if, when we were having sex, she shouted all these anti-Semitic things? It wouldn’t bother me in the least!’ That particular reverie led to ‘Palestinian Chicken,’ an episode, in “Curb”’s eighth and latest season—please, Larry, let it not be the last—that stages the Israel-Palestine conflict as a standoff between a Jewish deli and a neighboring Palestinian chicken joint in Los Angeles.”[Eric adds: David mentioned that this probably the world’s favorite “Curb episode.” I would like to try and take a little credit for Larry coming up with the idea because, ten years ago, I did an long interview with him and I told him I did not find it credible that he would not sleep with that beautiful woman in her dressing room (when he had permission from Chery) just because she had a picture of George W. Bush on her shelf. Larry replied. “You’re right, it’s funny but not credible. Hell, I’d sleep with a Holocaust denier.” A few weeks later, Larry called me and asked if I planned to use that line because if I didn’t he wanted to use it again as his ID for a piece of his that Vanity Fair was publishing. I said I didn’t see how I was going to be able to work it into a piece on Hollywood and Democratic fundraising and so I gave it back to him. Holocaust denier becomes Palestinian sexy lady—plus sexy lady and her sister—and you get the great Chicken episode.]

4. Audience Questions: “These started out normal enough. Had David had any mentors when he was coming up in the comedy scene? No! Would he consider going to Comic Con, just down the street, maybe as the caped lawyer he played on ‘Seinfeld’? Not likely—‘I hate costumes. Even as a kid, I never wore a costume on Halloween.” What did he have to say about ‘Curb’’s obvious Jewishness? ‘Jews think that all the time,” David said, grinning. ‘They think no one else will get it, that it’s a secret show just for them.’” [Eric adds: Hey wait a minute. I asked that question. And it’s a good question. And he didn’t answer it. But he was funny. Still I want an answer. Does he think Jews and Gentiles see Curb differently and does that affect the writing?]

5. Then this: “A young woman approached the microphone to let David know that she had recently ‘recommended’ someone for a job at her office, a reference to a ‘Curb’ episode from Season 6 in which Larry ‘recommends’—wink-wink—a director he dislikes to Richard Lewis to avoid pissing the guy off. The woman was distressed; her ‘recommendation’ had been read as a real recommendation, sans scare quotes, and the person she disliked was starting at work on Monday. What did David think about that? ‘You’re an idiot!’ David crowed. The woman began to protest. ‘O.K., fine,’ he said, in what seemed intended as a nominally conciliatory gesture. ‘You learned a lesson.’”

6. And this: “The final interrogator stepped to the mic. In a brash, performative voice, she told David that she had been working on a project to support human happiness across the globe, and would he be interested in being one of the first people to look at it? ‘Nope!’ cried David, and the meeting was adjourned, to much applause.

You can read that whole article here. Interestingly, it skips the part that got the British tabloids all excited. That was this:

7. In her interview with Vanity Fair, Jennifer Lawrence said of Larry: “I’m in love with him, and I have been for a really long time,” she said. “I worship Woody Allen, but I don’t feel it below the belt the way I do for Larry David.” When Remnick read the quote aloud, Larry replied “Smart kid. It’s a shame that I’m about 40 years older than she is.” As for the “below the belt” comment, he added: “Maybe she’s referring to her knees.”

I didn’t get to see Jane Mayer interview Edward Snowden via Skype but you can see it here.

I wanted to see Susan M. interview David Johansen/Buster Poindexter—which everybody said was great—but priorities at home dictated that I go see the “Cats vs. Dogs” debate that took place simultaneously. The New Yorker covered that too. My (Cat) side lost, I’d say thanks to the brilliant, albeit sneaky presentations by Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell. Ariel Levy did a fine job for the Cat side but ended up being overpowered. Sorry, but Jill Abramson was embarrassing, but apparently, the audience was so biased that it did not cost her side the argument as well it should have. The Times is in much better hands with its current cat-loving Executive Editor.

Here is some Gopnik:

“Not only are all dogs Democrats and all cats Republicans but all dogs are Jewish and cats are goyishe,” he offered. “Dogs are like Jewish people: they feel guilty, and they act guilty. They revel in the demonstration of guilt.” “Mr. Gopnik, don’t pander to the bench,” Judge Remnick cautioned.

And some Gladwell:

“This whole debate has massive national-security implications,” he said, before describing how he had once experienced canine heroism when he was on a flight that was grounded because of a bomb scare. As the plane sat on the runway, the baggage was unloaded, and a dog tirelessly sniffed every last suitcase, something, he asserted, a cat would never do. “Why are cats so resolutely indifferent to pulling their weight in the war against terror?” he asked. “How many lives have been needlessly put at risk? We are engaged in a life-or-death struggle in the West, and the cat is sleeping on the sidelines.”

Ms. Levy:

“Cats teach you the truth about intimacy: you can never know what is in the mind of another being.” Cats are called commensal domesticates, Levy reminded the jury, which means they choose to live with humans, but they can revert back to feral state. She went on to quote Thorstein Veblen, “The cat lives with man on terms of equality. By contrast, dog has a gift of unquestioning subservience and a slave’s quickness in guessing his master’s moves.” “I say, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Cats!”

Shame on Adam, however, for holding up a photo of Nixon with a tiger and Kennedy with a dog. Ever heard of “Checkers” fella? If it hadn’t been for that damned dog, we would never have invaded Cambodia.

Then I went to see eight comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Todd Barry, Susie Essman, Jena Friedman, Al Madrigal, Marc Maron, Morgan Murphy, and Baron Vaughn. I don’t feel like writing it up, but I will say, I was sitting next to a nice guy from Boston who had brought his 12-year-old daughter. Bad, bad move, Mister. She will likely never recover from Morgan Murphy alone.

Finally on Sunday, I went to see Deadhead par Excellence, Nick Paumgarten interview Neil Young. Turned out to be almost entirely about cars, like Neil’s new book. It was a pretty wry, low-key interview. Here’s the highlight (imagine slides) and from memory:

NP:  So that’s the hearse you used to drive?

NY: Yep

NP: So that was the one you called “Mort?”

NY: No, that’s the hearse with no name….

OK, that’s it.

I’ve been in a real Beatles mood lately. There’s the wonderful mono box I mentioned recently and I just got a new coffee-table book in the mail yesterday, Beatles: Here, There, and Everywhere, which is kind of fun, and not that expensive for a coffee-table book, and it reminds me to remind people that if you can see The Fab Faux, you should. They are less a “tribute band” than a band of great musicians playing great, great music that all happens to be by the Beatles (much of it, never performed). I’m seeing them this weekend at the Beacon with the Hogshead Horns and the Creme Tangerine strings for a “John vs. Paul” extravaganza. Just look at this crazy poster and you’ll see that the benefits will not only be for Mr. Kite.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Immaculate Criticism: The Beltway Hops Aboard Leon Panetta’s Book Tour
by Reed Richardson

I hope Leon Panetta isn’t paying his book publicist much.

With our current media establishment, he really needn’t bother. I mean, why pay for uniformly glowing coverage of his new memoir, Worthy Fights, when just about everyone in Washington has proven so willing to provide the same thing for free?

Of course, this kind of White House tell-all is catnip inside the Beltway. Obsessing over the latest ex-official’s book, and mining it for catty comments about former bosses and colleagues to be breathlessly repeated ad nauseam, is a time-honored media tradition. It’s now a lucrative business model too, and savvy pols looking to cash in on their public service understand their role in this symbiotic relationship—to move more merchandise, they need meet this news cycle demand with a supply of juicy quotes. For instance, recall the press’s selective fixation on the relatively small number of Obama critiques in the recent best-selling memoirs by Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates.

In Panetta’s case, though, this over-eager reception from the media elite has surpassed even those two books and extended to lionizing the man himself. Indeed, the overweening admiration collectively heaped on both Panetta’s book and the man himself in the past week would be enough to even make a softball interviewer like Larry King blush in embarrassment.

Dan Balz, for example, in his Washington Post column “The Take” let us know that Panetta’s book, which takes critical aim at President Obama’s foreign policy and leadership style, was no less than a “public service.” And that Panetta is someone “unmatched in public life,” who “called things the way he’s seen them in Washington, combining wit, laughter and a zeal for political rough-and-tumble with the tough-mindedness of someone who came to get things done.” Geez, Dan, save something for the blurb on the paperback edition.

Over at The New York Times, Peter Baker offered up a (relatively) more restrained account of Panetta as truth-telling seer, calling him “typically frank, occasionally feisty.” But, as if to make up for this unseemly display of self-control, Baker’s story went on to dutifully recite nearly every one of the book’s digs at Obama with minimal pushback or critical analysis of the man making them. Baker’s colleague at the Times, columnist David Brooks, was not so demure, however, lauding Panetta as “warm, engaging, down to earth,” and a “great public servant in our current, ungreat era.”

Susan Page, at USA Today, was only slightly less effusive in her praise during her “exclusive,” which didn’t seem very exclusive since Panetta was talking to damn near everybody this week. At times, she just cut out the middleman and handed the microphone over to Panetta himself, who happily offered up humblebrag quotes like this one from deep in my-greatest-weakness-is-caring-too-much territory:

“‘Look, I’ve been a guy who’s always been honest,’ Panetta says. ‘I’ve been honest in politics, honest with the people that I deal with. I've been a straight talker. Some people like it; some people don’t like it. But I wasn’t going to write a book that kind of didn’t express what I thought was the case.’”

Eat your heart out, Col. Nathan Jessup.

Panetta’s no-nonsense, “Can you handle the truth I’m dishing out?” shtick certainly impressed National Journal’s Ron Fournier. As someone whose infatuation with the supposed neglect of presidential superpowers is well known—and has long since justified easy parody—Panetta’s critique of Obama’s leadership style and amorphous advice for him to “engage” more represented nothing short of a Vulcan mind-meld for Fournier. Not surprisingly, Fournier wrote a column rehashing Panetta’s talking points and, for good measure, he quoted Balz’s fawning column at length in it.

Even a mild attempt at offering a balanced take on Panetta’s book managed to fully miss the point, as when Post columnist Dana Milbank chastised Panetta for showing a stunning “level of disloyalty” to Obama. This is, again, an establishment lament, a kind of ‘can’t-we-all-get-along’ bemoaning of insider-on-insider conflict. Former government officials shouldn’t be bound be some kind of elitist code of silence—they owe their allegiance to the public and the truth, as Conor Friedersdorf argues. But did Panetta live up to the latter? Who knows, because a distracted Milbank never bothers with a critical assessment of Panetta’s actual character or the merits of the book’s arguments.

Here’s how wholly surreal things got this past week. Unrepentant hacks like Peggy Noonan and Dick Morris actually demonstrated less wanton credulity about Panetta’s motives and arguments than most of the serious, establishment press.

So what’s really behind this weird, Beltway love-in for Panetta? At its core, an innate tribalism. After nearly 50 years working in and around Washington, Panetta is recognized by the establishment as one of its own—a consummate DC insider. Longtime Washington Post columnist David Ignatius calls him a “pragmatic man of the center,” which is perhaps the highest compliment one can give inside the Beltway. And within this world, exercising power effectively is its own reward, regardless of the ends achieved or principles compromised:

“But Panetta’s summa came in 2009, when Obama tapped him for the unlikely role of CIA director. The new president understood that the agency needed a skilled politician to rebuild its standing, and Panetta was an inspired, if surprising, choice. He quickly allowed himself to be co-opted by the agency’s prickly career officers (who excel at that, and at tormenting directors who refuse the chalice). He then went on a jihad against the CIA’s enemies, starting with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had made the mistake of calling Panetta a liar. She never did that again. Panetta recounts the ‘ugly struggle’ with Dennis Blair, the retired admiral who, as director of national intelligence, was Panetta’s nominal boss and mistakenly thought he could impose the chain of command on a veteran Washington infighter.”

To anyone outside of the DC establishment, the above pattern of behavior would strongly suggest a self-serving recklessness. But note how Ignatius subtly frames these actions to Panetta’s credit. These actions also raise troubling questions. One obvious one: might then-Speaker Pelosi have been justified in publicly calling then-CIA Director Panetta a liar? Seems a highly relevant question worth answering for a number of important reasons, but especially if so much has been invested in Panetta’s character as the moral foundation for his criticisms. To Ignatius, however, the question doesn’t even merit revisiting, not when he can marvel at someone so adept at manipulating bureaucratic power. By the way, the answer is yes, Panetta did lie.

This is the Leon Panetta you didn’t hear about in the past week. The one who is notorious for falling captive to the parochial interests of his current duty station. Thus, while in charge of a CIA desperately in need of reining in, he nonetheless became incensed when the Justice Department merely considered criminal prosecutions of CIA agents that had conducted torture. (A course of action that, sadly, never happened.) Similarly, Panetta squeals in his book about the budget cuts the Defense Department had to endure during his time there and how Obama made little effort to roll them back. But the press that mindlessly repeats this critique conveniently overlooks that those cuts—also known as the sequestration—were specifically added to the 2011 budget deal as a poison pill for Republicans. That Obama would try to free the GOP from its side of the debt bargain makes zero political sense, but in Panetta’s myopic view, it’s just another example of the president’s feckless disengagement.

As for all the supposed candor Panetta dishes out? Well, his friends in the Washington also seem to have forgotten how it so often comes across as reckless rhetoric if not outright deception. For example, remember the time as Defense Secretary that Panetta inexplicably linked the Iraqi invasion to 9/11 and the war on Al Qaeda? Or how about the time he mistakenly told Afghan President Hamid Karzai—twice—that the US planned to leave 70,000 troops in the country through to 2014 (more than twice the actual number). And let’s not forget Panetta’s even more alarming comments last year, when he both lied and obfuscated about the scope of the US drone strike program, raising more questions about his role in it.

In fact, as Michael Cohen explained last week in a Daily Beast column—one that got far less attention than the former Defense Secretary’s numerous front-page profiles and TV hits—Leon Panetta represents a lot of what is wrong with Washington. As Cohen notes:

“There is more here, however, than just DC-style situational loyalty. In Panetta’s obsessive focus on the politics of national security, his fetishization of military force and his utter lack of strategic vision, what is also evident is the one-dimensional foreign policy thinking that so dominates Washington—and which Panetta has long embodied.”

No surprise then, that Panetta’s biggest beefs with President Obama involve moments where the president dared to diverge—even briefly—from the hawkish conventional wisdom that pervades Washington.

In choosing not to attack Syria last fall following his “red line” comments and in acceding to Iraq’s demands for a full withdrawal of US troops (an agreement brokered under President Bush, you might recall), Obama showed weakness and damaged our nation’s credibility, Panetta alleges. That the US Congress and the Iraqi parliament, respectively, also opposed Panetta’s preferred course of action seems to be of little consequence to him. For real DC operators, democracy is merely a nuisance to be gotten around, I guess. But such Machiavellian instincts make his book’s calls for Obama to “engage” more with Congress ring hollow.

Likewise, Panetta notably describes Obama as having “lost his way” in the past two years, but he “may have found himself again with regard to this ISIS crisis.” That Panetta’s disappointment with the president’s foreign policy so closely correlates to the US pulling out of Iraq and winding down the surge in Afghanistan is no coincidence. Neither is his assertion that our latest military escapade in the Middle East—what he ominously calls a “30-year war”—offers the potential to resurrect Obama’s leadership before leaving office.

The upshot: Panetta fully subscribes to an aggressive foreign policy mindset where waging endless war equals exerting leadership. But such a position seems so unremarkable inside the cloistered world of the Washington establishment that it literally isn’t remarked upon. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Beltway press had a choice in how it covered Panetta and his book. And, in fact, it has shown on at least one occasion the distinct ability to aim tough skepticism at a White House memoir.

Of course, there’s a big caveat to this example: The Price of Loyalty, the 2004 re-telling of former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s tenure in the Bush White House. Written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, and drawing upon copious notes and documentation, this as-told-to tell-all portrayed Bush as a thoroughly disengaged leader and provided stunning evidence that his administration was already plotting the removal of Saddam Hussein a mere 10 days into office. Arriving as it did at the beginning of the 2004 presidential primary season, Democrats like Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Wesley Clark seized on its revelations as evidence of Bush’s Iraqi WMD deception and called on Congress to investigate.

O’Neill enjoyed a spate of coverage, but the attention on his book disappeared from the media landscape almost as quirky as it appeared. Over at The Weekly Standard, the editors couldn’t help gloating that, after a mere 48 hours, coverage of The Price of Loyalty had fizzled out and gone “poof.” This was thanks, in part, to dismissive, condescending columns within the media elite like this one by Slate’s Michael Kinsley, which barely mentioned Bush’s impure intentions about Iraq and ended by calling O’Neill an “idiot.” No labeling of his book a “public service” from this crowd.

But perhaps the most illuminating contrast between Panetta’s recent victory lap though Washington and O’Neill’s rougher ride comes courtesy of The Washington Post. In a Jan. 15, 2004 editorial entitled “Mr. O’Neill and Iraq,” the paper offered up what now looks like the Bizarro version of last week’s beatification of Panetta, right down to its flip-flopping over the value of blunt, off-the-cuff comments and its sober tut-tutting of anyone who indulges in lazy second-guessing about the president's leadership:

“The question is: Who is doing the misleading. During his rocky tenure as Treasury secretary, Mr. O’Neill proved to be a loose cannon, sometimes spooking financial markets with wild remarks, sometimes holding forth with extreme confidence on subjects, such as African development, about which he knew little….

“The wisdom of waging war in Iraq is a legitimate and important topic of political debate. But the Democratic candidates do no favors to their positions when they accept, uncritically, a half-unsurprising and half-dubious account, for no better reason than that it fits their prejudices.”

This final warning is wise advice, indeed. Too bad that when it comes to Washington insiders who are all about spewing vague bipartisan platitudes and fueling an endless state of war, the same Beltway press can’t see past their own prejudices to follow it.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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