Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace
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The inspiring and revelatory autobiography of the defense secretary and CIA director who led the intelligence war that killed Bin Laden, among many important roles in a legendary career
It could be said that Leon Panetta has had two of the most consequential careers of any American public servant in the past fifty years. His first career, beginning as an army intelligence officer and including a distinguished run as one of Congress’s most powerful and respected members, lasted thirty-five years and culminated in his transformational role as Clinton’s budget czar and White House chief of staff. He then “retired” to establish the Panetta Institute with his wife of fifty years, Sylvia; to serve on the Iraq Study Group; and to protect his beloved California coastline. But in 2009, he accepted what many said was a thankless task: returning to public office as the director of the CIA, taking it from a state of turmoil after the Bush-era torture debates and moving it back to the vital center of America’s war against Al Qaeda, including the campaign that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. And then, in the wake of bin Laden’s death, Panetta became the U.S. secretary of defense, inheriting two troubled wars in a time of austerity and painful choices.
Like his career, Worthy Fights is a reflection of Panetta’s values. It is imbued with the frank, grounded, and often quite funny spirit of a man who never lost touch with where he came from: his family’s walnut farm in beautiful Carmel Valley, California. It is also a testament to a lost kind of political leadership, which favors progress and duty to country over partisanship. Panetta is a Democrat who pushed for balanced budgets while also expanding care for the elderly and sick; a devout Catholic who opposes the death penalty but had to weigh every drone strike from 2009 through 2011. Throughout his career, Panetta’s polestar has been his belief that a public servant’s real choice is between leadership or crisis. Troubles always come about through no fault of one’s own, but most can be prevented with courage and foresight.
As always, Panetta calls them as he sees them in Worthy Fights. Suffused with its author’s decency and stubborn common sense, the book is an epic American success story, a great political memoir, and a revelatory view onto many of the great figures and events of our time.
the accelerating tempo of those raids. It was clear to me that under President Álvaro Uribe, with whom I met, the government was committed to keeping up the pressure and that progress was being made. In Mexico, the issues were very different, and mostly connected to our extensive trading ties and long border. President Felipe Calderón hosted me during my time there, and he was anxious about growing violence near the border, particularly in Juárez and, on our side of the line, El Paso. He
was required to reimburse the Treasury for my travel. Typically that meant writing a check for about $630 each time I traveled home and back, more if I had family or Bravo with me. That was about what I would have spent flying commercially, which I would have been happy to do if allowed to. I dutifully paid my bills. The problem was that the military plane that carried me, usually a small air force business jet specially outfitted with secure communications equipment, cost $3,200 an hour to
11. Ibid. 12. Ibid., April 27, 1993. 13. Associated Press, April 28, 1993. 14. Clinton, My Life, 525. Chapter 7: “If the White House Is Falling Apart . . .” 1. Ira Magaziner records, Box 9, Scheduling, Clinton Presidential Library. 2. Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1993. 3. New York Times, September 14, 1993. 4. Ibid., November 18, 1993. 5. Stuart M. Butler, “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” the Heritage Lectures, October 2, 1989. Available at
of the federal government in the second half of the twentieth century, and found that it was exceeded in terms of difficulty only by reducing workplace discrimination. The study may be found at http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2000/12/11governance-light. *Clinton did come to her district and did his best for her in 1994, but she was defeated by eight thousand votes. I’m sure that had she voted against us, she would have won, making her vote on the budget one of the bravest I have ever
included. Still, it was a fragile device. At any point, we could have lost our annual appropriations vote, and the blockade against drilling would have fallen. So even as the moratorium went into effect, I continued to look for a more permanent way to hold off drilling. It took another ten years, but in 1992, I introduced legislation to amend the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 to designate the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. That designation protected the entire