He was sweetly nostalgic at his 50th law school reunion speech. For my 15 year old, it was perhaps eye-opening to see fairly maudlin remarks delivered in a sincere and heartfelt way. Take a little of that millennial irony edge off, going forward, perhaps. He also spoke passionately about law school and its importance for his life and public service… again, a young person might have his “life changed” hearing someone make the pitch the way Panetta did. He described, not at length, the Osama operation. He delivered (very well) an old joke:
A rabbi sat next to a priest at a boxing match. The fighters entered the ring, full of bravado; prepared for the bout ahead. As the bell rang, one of the fighters made the sign of the cross. The rabbi leaned over to the priest and asked, “What does that mean?” The priest nodded and said, “Not a damn thing if he can’t fight.”
He also delivered a nice but shambling appeal to “This is America, America stands for good things, American values (of wanting a better life for our children) are great, but we have really bad leadership.”
Unfortunately that went on too long, so there was no time for questions. I had wanted to ask him whether the cruise missile attack on al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, fifteen years ago this past August 20, on apparently weak evidence that the plant was being used to produce a chemical weapon/nerve agent, may not have set or reinforced a bad evidentiary standard… Panetta had resigned as chief of staff in 1997, but it seems likely he would have had a strong opinion at the time. He certainly minced no words this evening: he said president Obama should have destroyed targets in Syria as soon as he decided the chemical weapons attack in Syria posed a national security threat.