Leon Panetta told a story Wednesday about a rabbi and Roman Catholic priest who attended a boxing match.
The rabbi noticed one of the boxers make the sign of the cross, a ritual personal blessing.
What did that mean, the rabbi asked.
“The priest said, ‘It doesn’t mean a damn thing if you can’t fight,’ ” said the former secretary of defense.
The story illustrated one of Panetta’s principal points Wednesday as he accepted the annual Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Award in Kansas City. However fervent one’s political beliefs might be, Panetta said, contemporary legislators must fight through distrust to achieve agreements that benefit all.
“Governing is not easy,” Panetta told the 400 attendees.
“You have to deal with people you may not like. Some are smart, some are dumb, some are honest, some are not honest. And yet governing is what you have to do to make sure democracy works.”
The real strength of America, he added, “lies in the common sense, and resilience, and fight of the American people.”
Panetta contrasted the apparent lack of resolve displayed by current members of Congress to those serving in the U.S. armed forces, especially those in the 2011 mission to find Osama bin Laden, conducted during Panetta’s term as director of the CIA.
“To go 150 miles into Pakistan, at night, not knowing what the hell they were going to find or what the risks were that could have exploded on them at any moment — but they did the mission,” he said.
“They were successful, and they sent a clear message to the world that nobody who attacks the United States of America gets away with it.”
Panetta noted ongoing terrorist threats to the country.
“We are still facing the threat of terrorism,” he said. “Yes, we have gone after the core al-Qaida leadership, but al-Qaida is now on the rise — in Yemen, in Syria, in Somalia and throughout North Africa.”
He also worries about threats to the country’s cyber infrastructure.
“Let me just tell you, cyber attacks could very well paralyze this nation,” Panetta said. “Our enemies are looking at our electric grid systems, our chemical systems, our transportation systems.
“They could literally create a Pearl Harbor using a cyber attack.”