Looking back at a long political career, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday lamented an increasingly bitter atmosphere in Washington, saying there was “too much meanness” on display.
His comments come amid a mounting budget crisis in a deeply divided Congress and after Republican lawmakers renewed threats to block the appointment of the man nominated to succeed Panetta at the Pentagon, former senator Chuck Hagel.
Panetta, who served for decades in Washington as an influential lawmaker before holding powerful posts under two Democratic presidents, said his only “disappointment” in his job as Pentagon chief was how Congress sometimes failed to play a constructive role.
“I always felt that — you know, that the leadership in the Congress and the leadership of whatever administration was involved here, that when it came to the big issues facing this country, that there was a willingness to work together to resolve those issues,” he told a news conference.
“There will always be party differences. There will always be political differences. There will be ideological differences,” he said.
“But there are also some lines that are there that make that process work, lines that involve mutual respect; lines that involve, you know, courtesy and a degree of respect for each other, despite whatever their decisions are.”
But traditions of courtesy and civility were “breaking down” among lawmakers, he said.
“It becomes too personal. It becomes too mean,” he said.
“Everybody’s got legitimate points, but there’s a way to express it in a way that compliments our democracy, doesn’t demean our democracy. And I think, you know, what you see on display is too much meanness.”
Panetta first entered politics as an aide to a Republican senator, Thomas Kuchel, in 1966, then served under president Richard Nixon in the Office for Civil Rights, before resigning over differences with the White House.
He left Washington and worked for New York City Mayor John Lindsay and later was elected as a Democrat to Congress from California, serving for 17 years.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Panetta served as budget director and later chief of staff. Under President Barack Obama, Panetta led the CIA from 2009 to 2011 and then served as defense secretary.