02/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Panetta's Best Qualification for the Job: He'll Tell Obama the Truth

When I was writing Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, about Bill Clinton's post presidency, I interviewed (by telephone) Leon Panetta, the man selected by President-elect Barack Obama to head the CIA. I was so impressed by Panetta's candidness as he spoke about Bill Clinton, whom he had served as chief of staff, that I noted at the end of the transcript of our taped conversation: "Panetta is the nicest, least full of himself guy I've ever interviewed. ...Honest and forthcoming and nothing off the record or on background."

Will Panetta, son of Italian immigrants, be a good intelligence chief? Critics of the appointment worry that he has no intelligence experience, although other highly rated CIA chiefs have had less experience than Panetta, 70, an eight-term congressman from California, and, as Bill Clinton's chief of staff, privy to intelligence reports from 1994, when he took the job, until 1997, when he left. (Panetta was back home, establishing his Panetta Institute at California State University at Monterey when the Lewinsky scandal broke on January 21, 1998.)

When I interviewed Panetta on October 17, 2006, Hillary Clinton was expected to win the nomination and go on to win the presidency. There was every reason for Panetta--who maintained his friendship with Bill and played golf with him post presidency--to spout nothing but the usual platitudes that I heard so often when interviewing FOBs.

Not that Panetta didn't have plenty of good things to say about Bill--off-the-charts smarts, which made it easy to prepare him for press conferences because he remembered the wording of every proposed answer; a master at Hearts, because he remembered every card that was dealt; political talents eons above average--"one of the few politicians who can walk in a room and pretty much understand what people in that room... want to hear... He loved people... You don't have to... remind him who he's meeting. He knows their wives and cousins and children, remembers almost everything about them." Panetta credits Clinton's good nature and concern for the country for the post presidency friendship forged with former president (and CIA chief) George H.W. Bush, another "good guy," Panetta adds. Both men are "willing to try to find consensus... to try to find answers to problems, to do things that they think are better for the nation and the future." (One wonders, given the anti-"W" barbs on the campaign trail, how the "odd couple," as Barbara Bush used to call them, greeted each other during lunch at the White House today.)

But then comes the dark side--rendered darkest by the Lewinsky scandal. "I don't think it's any great mystery," Panetta told me, "that what happened in the 2nd term obviously created the shadow [over] a lot of the good things that I think President Clinton did; historically would have made him one of the great presidents but for what happened in that 2nd term."

About Clinton's last-day-in-office pardon of Marc Rich, which is headed back to the headlines during the Eric Holder as Attorney General confirmation hearings--Holder was number two at the Justice Department when the pardon slipped through--Panetta observes, "It's one of those things sometimes you think is part of... Clinton's cycle in which every time he's doing very well, somehow a mistake is made or something happens, that sends you from an up rollercoaster to a down rollercoaster... He was doing good, to then do what he did at the end, it's very hard to find an explanation for, I'm sure, [then Chief of Staff] John Podesta did alert him to the down side... and what the impact would be.... Part of that was maybe he was telling his enemies, `See what I'm going to do to get back at you in some way.'"

Panetta has been easily accessible to the press; reporters like him and often quote him, as they did when he said he was disappointed with the President's behavior during the Lewinsky affair and that he could understand the anger of Clinton's cabinet members whom the President lied to and then stood by silently as they lied to the public. Seven months later, admitting he had lied, Clinton apologized to his cabinet. About that Panetta told a reporter for the New York Times, "You don't want to hang your staff out there with false statements. When you're asked to spin something that's not truthful, that's where you have to draw the line."

Chances are good that on the intelligence front, should Panetta head that agency, President Obama will get the truth. And that, as recent events have shown, is a very big step forward.

California Senator Diane Feinstein, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, was first out of the box in criticizing the rumored Panetta appointment, arguing that an intelligence professional was needed in these perilous times. More interesting was Feinstein's breaking ranks with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over seating Roland Burris in the U.S. Senate. Burris should be seated, argued Feinstein, who also chairs the Rules Committee, because Gov. Rod Blagojevich had the constitutional right to appoint him. While I believe that Burris is a figure of such pomposity that he's worthy of a minor role in a Dickens novel, that he would never win the nomination in a special election, I have to admit that Feinstein is right. She's also practical. She is reportedly considering a run for California governor in 2010. Videos of Democrats blocking Burris from the world's most exclusive club, without him, all-white, will come back to haunt politicians when they run for reelection or attempt to trade up to a higher office.