Defense Secretary Leon Panetta didn’t get his Valentine’s Day wish after all. With Senate Democrats failing to close the debate on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to succeed him, Panetta will remain on the job for the next 10 days until the Senate goes back in session.
Earlier Thursday, Panetta used humor to express his frustration with the Senate’s delay in confirming Hagel to succeed him, delivering a string of one-liners indicating he is itching to leave his post.
Panetta’s zingers at a Pentagon event to honor former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stole the show. The most traveled secretary of state in history looked rested and relaxed, and was no longer wearing the special glasses she required following her concussion in December. This was her first public appearance as a private citizen since leaving her post two weeks ago.
In his remarks, Panetta described how he was delighted to be honoring someone that he’s worked with and for over the last 20 years who is a “strong and dedicated partner of the Department of Defense and, I believe, without question, one of the finest public servants of our time.”
He hailed the event as “a great Valentine’s Day present for all of us here at the department.”
Then, to loud laughs, he said, “The second-best Valentine’s present would be to allow Sylvia and I to get the hell out of town at the end of the day. … I feel like it’s ‘Groundhog Day’ around here.”
Panetta had planned for Valentine’s Day to be his last day on the job.
Panetta recalled how they first began working together 20 years ago when he joined the Clinton administration as OMB director. He again got laughs when he said, “It was a different world then. Think about the key political challenges that we had back then – health care issues, gun control issues, partisan gridlock, budget deficits. On second thought …”
He said the only thing that’s really changed since then is that both he and Clinton are “a little older, perhaps a little wiser, a little less patient, particularly with political dysfunction, a little bit less tolerant of B.S. in general, and it is probably a good thing at this point in time that we have a chance to get some damn rest. She’s made it.”
Once the audience stopped laughing, he continued, “She’s made it. And, you know, I’m going to have as broad a smile as she does, hopefully, in a few days. ”
Once again, the audience guffawed as he paused, chuckled and shook his head and said, ”I have a hard time. … You know? I’ve got– My office is packed up. Sylvia is packing at home. I’m ready to go. It’s like, ‘awright.’”
As he has done a lot recently, he referenced the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” when he spoke of the close cooperation he and Clinton had when he was CIA director - ”particularly during the bin Laden, which, you know, there is a movie out on this,” he said to laughs.
Speaking of actor James Gandolfini, he added, “You know, the guy who plays me isn’t quite, quite right. … My preference probably would have been Pacino.”
Panetta praised the “very close partnership” between the Pentagon and the State Department, fostered by his predecessor Robert Gates and which he continued with Clinton. In policy discussions, he said, “Hillary has always brought us back to Earth with the right argument at the right time. Her ability, in the end, to be very pragmatic about what it takes to get something done is, I think, part of her genius as a leader.
“We have fought on opposite sides of the issues,” he said. “I’d sure as hell rather have her on my side than be against me, because she is so good in making her arguments.”
However, more often than not, he said, both of them have stood “side by side” in making recommendations for President Obama’s tough choices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the Middle East.
Looking very relaxed and rested, Clinton praised the work of the Defense Department. She noted that the State Department and Pentagon have historically had a contentious relationship, and that she was determined as Secretary of State to help the agencies work with, and not against, each other.
“I like being on the American team, not the State Department team, not the Defense Department team, not the partisan team,” she said. “I think when we take these positions and take that oath of office, we really pledge to be part of the American team.”
The former secretary said that while the agencies did not always agree, they supported one another. She was especially grateful to senior defense officials who advocated that Congress fully fund of State Department development programs, something that historically did not happen. Clinton said the partnership developed over the last four years has made America’s leadership role in the world stronger, while also keeping Americans safe at home.
“Because of these efforts, our diplomats and development experts all over the world are working more closely than ever with all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines,” said Clinton. ”Whether it’s advancing the transition in Afghanistan, or responding to the triple disaster in Japan or pursuing terrorists in North Africa, we have seen that America is stronger and more effective when we work together.”
There was one issue that Clinton said she absolutely agreed with Secretary Panetta about: the actor choice in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“I have had the great privilege of knowing Leon for what he said was 20 years,” said Clinton to laughter. “I think Al Pacino would have been more appropriate.”