“You've served with integrity and decency and grace. You're a reminder of what public service ought to be,” President Obama said Friday in an official armed forces farewell ceremony filled with friendly jabs at the typically jolly secretary. It was also an occasion in which Obama used Panetta’s history of bipartisan deal-making as an example of days gone by and urged Congress to stave off a massive across-the-board cut to defense spending.
Now, Obama said, is the time “for Democrats and Republicans to come together in the same spirit that Leon Panetta always brought to public service -- solving problems, not trying to score points. Doing right for the country, not for any particular political agenda.”
“This is without question the fanciest send-off I’ve ever gotten in Washington,” Panetta said, chuckling. “I have spent a long time in this town. As the son of immigrants, as the president pointed out, I have truly lived the American Dream.”
Panetta’s farewell, held inside an old gymnasium at Joint Base Myer-Henderson-Hall just up the hills from the Pentagon, was more intimate than the weeks and weeks of tributes held for Bob Gates and drew fewer out-of-town celebrities than the crowded retirement for then-celebrated David Petraeus.
But its size was fitting to Panetta's time in office. His biggest legacy will most likely be the role he played as director of central intelligence in overseeing the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden, rather than as Defense Department chief.
“The memory of that operation and the team that helped put it together -- both the intelligence team and the military team -- will be with me forever,” he said.
At the Pentagon, Panetta was front and center in Washington politics, testifying before Congress 11 times alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. The duo most recently was called to speak before the Senate on the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, now considered by much of the national security community to be a tragedy turned into a case of partisan outrage.
Panetta is not quite finished. The Senate still must confirm his replacement, Chuck Hagel. On Friday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said he would direct the committee vote as soon as possible, dismissing objections from Republicans seeking more finanicial disclosure information. So Panetta's actual last day is likely one to two weeks away.
While by all accounts an affable boss to the building, his loyal golden retriever Bravo at his side, Panetta leaves the Pentagon facing much uncertainty, including about the size of this year’s defense budget and the future troop commitment in Afghanistan. Panetta called on the country to overcome its differences, a topic on which he raged in a fiery speech at Georgetown on Thursday.
In his tenure at the Pentagon, no moment or issue stands out as the bin Laden raid did. Still, Panetta insists his final job in Washington (really, this time) was the most meaningful.
“It has been the honor of my life to have served in the position as secretary of defense.”
Here are some notable faces spotted in the crowd:
Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff
Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Robert Mueller, FBI director
Mike Morell, acting director, CIA
John Brennan, deputy national security advisor
Fran Townsend, former homeland security advisor
Sandy Berger, former national security advisor
Eric Shinseki, secretary of veterans affairs
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-CA), chairman, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
Jim Clapper, director of national intelligence
Gen. Norty Schwartz, retired Air Force chief of staff
Gen. John Kelly, commander, U.S. Southern Command
Adm. William McRaven, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command
John McHugh, secretary of the Army
Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy
Mike Donley, secretary of the Air Force
Ash Carter, deputy secretary of defense
Bill Lynn, former deputy secretary of defense
Norman Mineta, former secretary of transportation
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images