In 1976, I met a young Monterey lawyer, a bright young man and former Republican who was challenging (successfully, as it turned out) incumbent Burt Talcott for Congress.
He's still bright (and still a former Republican), but Leon Panetta is now 72 and the word out of Washington is that he'll be the next Secretary of Defense.
Panetta is, without question, the most effective and most honorable public servant I've ever met. Except for the period from 1998 until 2009, he has served in Washington as a congressman, budget director, White House chief of staff and CIA director.
You get the feeling, though, that through it all he really liked his 1998-2009 hiatus. That's when he created and ran his Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy. He was back in his hometown of Monterey, working with students and preparing them, perhaps, for public service. It was a fitting cap to his career.
But in 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama beckoned, and said Panetta was needed to run the CIA. Now, as CIA director and apparently the next Secretary of Defense, he's shoulder-deep in the world's most complex and critical problems.
There's something depressing about that. Not Leon: he's an effective administrator and as competent as they come. Add to that a surprisingly small ego. The depressing part is that there obviously is no one capable of taking his place. President Obama and the Democratic leadership need him. And he's luckily healthy enough and vibrant enough to comply.
Public service matters to Mr. Panetta. He puts public service above all. He once explained to me about becoming President Clinton's chief of staff: "When the president of the United States asks you to do something, you do it."
That's why he'll take on the task of Defense Secretary, just as he adapted to the pressure of running the CIA.
Yes -- this Panetta guy is pretty good. But all the same, I know him well enough to think that all things being equal, he'd rather be back running his institute in Monterey.