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Praise for Panetta's Political Candor

BEFORE the incident is forgotten, let's pause for a moment and hail Leon Panetta. He did the unpardonable the other day in talking to some reporters: He committed candor.

The rules of the game called for Mr. Panetta, as the president's director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to give a pep talk in behalf of President Clinton's endangered economic package. He didn't.

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He said he saw a real danger of this economic program being torn apart by counterpressures "from liberal Democrats in the House and conservative Republicans in the Senate." His gloom (which he would have been expected to keep to himself) spilled out everywhere. He called the proposed trade pact with Mexico and Canada "dead" and was less than optimistic about Mr. Clinton's ability to persuade Congress to provide aid for Russia. And he said he was "very nervous" about an economy that the president has been

saying was getting better.

The president, doubtless jolted by a top aide speaking his own mind, tried to make the best of a difficult situation. He said that Panetta was speaking out of his own personal despondency and that he would "try to buck him up." He said he wouldn't "take Panetta to the woodshed." He knew he couldn't do that. A president can't publicly punish a key team member for telling the truth. It is understood that, privately, Clinton was seething.

I know very well how what is being called "the Panetta incident" happened. To begin with, Panetta is one of those rare politicians who - as the key budget-shaping member of Congress - was known for talking straight talk instead of providing what is known as "political answers." We in the press have known for a long time that there's something inside Panetta - let's call it "character" - that compels him to call a spade a spade.

Then put a public official - almost any public official - in a context where he is talking to a relatively few print reporters and (without all those TV cameras focused on the interview) he will be more relaxed, more likely to be talkative and informative and less likely to be close-mouthed and protective. That is my own observation based on watching such guests perform at countless Monitor breakfasts.

But then add the "Panetta factor" to what is really an interview with several reporters and what do you have? Well, you have that rare commodity, a politician with a penchant for candor actually saying what he really has on his mind. To this I can only add: How refreshing! Let's sing a song of praise for Panetta and say the world would be better off if we had more politicians like him.

Panetta was also his candid self in early March when he was the guest of the Monitor's breakfast forum. At that time he was optimistic: He spoke confidently of quick congressional action on Clinton's economic package. He foresaw the job-creating stimulus legislation being enacted by Easter. And he said he thought the rest of the president's plan - taxes and what the president called "investments" - would be in place by midsummer.

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Well, since that time the Republicans in Congress have destroyed that stimulus package and dimmed the prospects for Clinton's full economic program.

But Panetta, as Clinton's OMB chief and an official who is a key adviser at all significant economic policy sessions at the White House, would normally be expected in his outings with the press to provide what is often called "damage control." He should, according to the usual rules, be the good team player and confine his remarks to putting the president and his programs and intentions in the best light.

But Panetta is Panetta - and thank goodness for that. He must have really miffed Clinton - and Mrs. Clinton, too - when he suggested at this recent session with reporters that the president should delay the unveiling of his health-care program until mid-summer. Panetta thinks Clinton has given Congress all it can handle at this time.

Panetta's words probably won't change much, or anything. The health-care plan may be delayed a bit. Clinton is, indeed, making some changes in structuring his White House staff. To us this sounds more like political adjustment than substantive change. But whatever Clinton now does, the air in Washington does seem clearer and cleaner - thanks to Panetta.

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