By Peter Jamison
Obama's tapping of former Monterey congressman Leon Panetta for CIA director was bound to raise hackles among pols and pundits. While Panetta has that rarest of political assets -- an unimpaired reputation for probity among his colleagues and former constituents -- he has little direct knowledge of intelligence work.
Still, there can be no doubt that the pot was set all the more furiously astir with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's public disavowal of Panetta once the news broke. "I know nothing about this, other than what I've read," Feinstein said in a statement. "My position has consistently been that I believe the Agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time." When one veteran California political figure makes a statement like this about another, it's fair to ask: Is there more here than meets the eye?
The obvious flash point in the Panetta-Feinstein back story is the 1998 California governor's race. The two were widely viewed as the heavies in the Democratic primary, even though neither ended up running. In one episode from the prelude to the campaign, San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi passed over Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, to endorse Panetta, then chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
As Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle noted at the time, "The truth is, the conservative and fiercely independent Feinstein has never been considered a part of Northern California's liberal power base on Capitol Hill -- a club represented by Pelosi, Contra Costa Congressman George Miller and formerly Panetta." Pelosi later threw her weight behind Feinstein for governor, amid speculation that Panetta had privately indicated she should change course.
Feinstein found herself facing off against Panetta -- in his role representing the Clinton Administration -- a few other times in the mid-90s, notably on plans to close military bases in California and battles over balancing the federal budget.
But none of this should be construed as anything beyond the sort of "relatively minor" skirmishes that can happen between members of the same party, according to Robert Smith, a political-science professor at San Francisco State University. "I wouldn't read any past political difficulties between them," Smith said.
Opposition to Panetta may subside as critics realize that his integrity and experience -- including firsthand knowledge of intelligence issues from the inner sanctum of the Clinton White House and a successful spell directing the Office of Management and Budget -- are nothing to sneeze at. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Panetta's old congressional district, where he is still widely liked.)
In the meantime, Feinstein is making new waves. Following her snub from Obama on the Panetta pick, Feinstein broke with fellow Democrats this afternoon to express support for the beleaguered Roland Burris, who was appointed to the Senate by scandal-plagued Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Fiercely independent, indeed.