THE PLANK JANUARY 7, 2009
When Senator Dianne Feinstein heard that Leon Panetta was nominated to be the next CIA director, she wasn't just caught off guard in her capacity as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She also found herself confronting an old political colleague--even, at times, a rival--who had suddenly re-emerged on her turf.
The two northern California politicians have long overlapped in the context of both state and national politics. In 1995, Feinstein led a fight against the closure of several large military bases in the state, contending that it would have a devastating economic impact. Bill Clinton denounced the Defense commission that had drawn up the list of recommended base closures, but he ultimately decided to pass the bill anyway. As one local blog pointed out, Panetta--then Clinton's chief of staff--was thrown into an awkward position. Dispatched to mitigate the political fallout in the California delegation, the former California congressman had to deliver a painful harangue, asking them to sacrifice on behalf of the national interest. While some of the delegation ultimately accepted the outcome, Feinstein remained unconvinced and expressed "great disappointment."
Then, in 1997, Feinstein and Panetta both found themselves considering a run for governor. At the time, Panetta said that he would demur to his colleague and would not run as the Democratic candidate if Feinstein was in the race. But Feinstein deferred her decision for months on end, waiting until January 1998 to announce her decision not to run. By that time, it was too late for Panetta to raise the money that he needed to finance his campaign, and he decided to drop out of contention. Ultimately, it was another California heavyweight, Congresswoman Jane Harman--coincidentally enough, a front-runner for the CIA post up until weeks ago--who would emerge as the "centrist" Democratic candidate in the primary.
Given the stinging tone of Feinstein's reaction to Panetta's appointment, it's tempting to speculate that a degree of personal enmity has fueled the fight over the appointment. One Sacramento pol sees no shortage of reasons why Feinstein would have come out against Panetta: "It may be nothing more than that, as new Intel Committee chair, she felt she should have been in on the deal and she's taking it out on Panetta. Or it could be some past history. When Panetta was in the Clinton White House, there were many opportunities for him to irritate Lady Di, who's easily irritated when she feels she's being slighted." Others insist that the California veterans are on collegial terms. Joe Mathews, a former LA Times reporter (and occasional TNR contributor), says that the two share a relationship best characterized as "fairly friendly," adding that Panetta has long expressed his respect for Feinstein. Either way, the newest member of Obama's team seems to have a formidable rival on Capitol Hill.
--Barron YoungSmith and Suzy Khimm