President-elect Barack Obama's pick of Leon Panetta as director of the Central Intelligence Agency caught Washington by surprise.
A city of know-it-alls, Washington does not like surprises. As a result, the initial reactions to the appointment of Panetta — a former California congressman who served as Bill Clinton's budget czar before moving on to become his White House chief of staff — oscillated between quizzical and hostile.
Insufferable as Washington may be, it is nothing if not flexible. Once the residents of Capitol Hill have a chance to untangle their knotted knickers, the Senate will likely confirm Obama's Panetta nomination, which is expected to be made official any day now.
There are several reasons why Panetta may turn out to be a good choice. The word "may" is a necessary qualifier because the CIA is — even by Washington standards — such a wreck. Long plagued by its own bureaucratic shortcomings, the CIA has seen its questionable reputation further compromised by its submission to Vice-President Dick Cheney's bullying. Cheney, after all, demanded a green light from the agency for President George Bush's loathsome Iraq War. And then there is the indelicate issue of the agency's complicity in Bush's torture program.
If Panetta is confirmed — and the Phoenix hopes that he is — he'll have his work cut out for him.
The foundation for Panetta's appointment is his unqualified opposition to torture. Too many of the likely prospects for the job in the so-called intelligence community were — at a minimum — passive enablers of torture. Panetta brings clean hands to the job of shoveling out at least that stall in the CIA's muck-mounded stable.
But Panetta comes with more than a sense of decency. His tenure in the Clinton White House gave him a seat at the national-security table, where all top-level secret operations and programs of the Clinton administration were conceived, executed, and maintained. Panetta knows how and where the money is, and how it fuels and lubricates this secret world.
Panetta is no babe in the woods, either. A well-respected former eight-term congressman and presidential chief of staff, he is an experienced Washington in-fighter. Panetta will need every scintilla of guile he can muster if he is to clean up the CIA.
Attracting even more attention than the Panetta appointment is the unfinished business of the 2008 election season: finalizing the Senate seat choices for Minnesota, Illinois, and New York.
It looks as if sardonic comedian turned progressive politician Al Franken has eked out a narrow 225-vote victory over the Republican incumbent, right-wing nut-boy Norm Coleman. Coleman has said that he will challenge the outcome in court. But so far, Franken has won every round of the tangled recount battle. (For once, the Democrats seem to have better election lawyers than the Republicans.) While almost any Democrat would have been better than Coleman, you've got to love the fact that his replacement is the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Liar.
Even more thrilling is the wrangle over whether former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris will be seated to serve the remaining two years of Obama's Senate term. If the television clips of Burris are any indication, the man seems to be a model of self-satisfied pomposity. This suggests that Burris will be well-suited to Senate life.
Temperament aside, the flap over Burris's appointment is a phony one. As a former statewide office holder, Burris would come to the job with more public experience under his belt than Senator Ted Kennedy had garnered when Massachusetts voters first elected him at the age of 30.
The fly in the Burris anointment is, of course, disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has the legal power and responsibility to name Obama's successor. Blagojevich's alleged innovation of seeking to sell the seat for, among other things, an additional yearly salary of up to $300,000, is without a doubt troubling, disgraceful, and wrong. The problem is that it is only alleged. Blago, as the governor is now known, has not yet been indicted, let alone convicted. His appointment of Burris should be legally binding.
Is Burris the best person for the job? Perhaps not. Is he the worst? Not by a long shot. That Burris is an African-American filling the slot of the nation's only contemporary black senator adds a complication — albeit a substantially irrelevant one — to an already elaborate equation. (Maybe Blago has a better sense of humor than Franken.)
In the final analysis, the question of who will occupy Obama's Senate seat is not about temperament, not about a probably crooked appointer, and not about race. It is about the rule of law. In the view of the Phoenix, Burris should be seated.
Better known than Burris but with a far sketchier public record and nonexistent elective one is Caroline Kennedy, who appears poised to get the nod from New York Governor David Paterson to fill Hillary Clinton's vacated Senate seat when she formally takes over her new job as secretary of state.
To apply the "Burris standard," Kennedy is certainly not the worst-qualified candidate to take over for Clinton. But she is also certainly not the best.
Given her family's tradition of public service, Kennedy may well have a greater capacity for growth than Burris. Still, what, in the final analysis, is so troubling about her appointment is her name. If Caroline were not a Kennedy — if she were, say, a Burris — it is unlikely that she would be going to Washington.
In an age when the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown so great, the idea of privileged political dynasties — be they named Clinton, Bush, or Kennedy — should be more troubling than comforting.