Leon Panetta: What I learned about Joe Biden

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden at the Pentagon in 2011.

Leon Panetta served as Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013 and is chairman of The Panetta Institute for Public Policy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)My Italian father had a phrase that sums up the qualities of a good man -- "a buon uomo." It means more than just being a nice guy. It means that person can be trusted, that he is a hard worker, and that he is a reliable friend with a big heart. My father was careful about using this phrase; a man would have to be quite special to deserve it, he would say.

It is out of respect for my father's judgment that I feel comfortable calling Joe Biden a "buon uomo." He is a close friend who I know can help heal the nation's wounds that have been inflicted on our democracy these past four years.
Leon Panetta
I have known Joe for more than 40 years, going back to when I was first elected to the US House of Representatives from California, and he was a young member of the US Senate from Delaware. Over that time, I have worked with Joe and seen his principled leadership in action. What makes him a good leader -- and regularly reaffirms my faith in his leadership -- is his humanity.
The Senate and the House may just be a few steps apart on Capitol Hill, but they are miles apart when it comes to personal interaction. That separation is largely a consequence of the reality that each body is busy working on its own issues, committees and fundraising -- leaving little time for crossover.
    But friendships can extend across the Hill -- and, thanks to Joe, I got to experience that firsthand. A group of House members and I put together regular weekly dinners to share food, conversation and political gossip, and, on a whim, we invited Joe to participate one time. To our surprise, he agreed to attend and, more importantly, he fit right in.
    Coming from a boisterous Irish Catholic family, Joe was used to jumping right into conversation, in this case as if he was just another House member. And because of investment in getting to know all of us, he formed lasting bonds with members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, the late John Lewis and Chuck Schumer (who represented New York's 9th district at the time).
    In Bill Clinton's administration, I served as director of the Office of Management and Budget and Chief of Staff to the President. Still in the Senate, Joe provided critical support to many of the President's priorities -- including the passage of an assault weapons ban. The ban was an important part of the President's initiative against gun violence, and Joe, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was one of the key managers of that bill.
    Because the gun control provisions were controversial, the bill at one point got held up in the House of Representatives. As Chief of Staff to the President, I was working with the House leadership to try and salvage the bill. It is rare for senators to come over to the House to try and move legislation, but that is exactly what Joe did in the effort to save the bill. Working alongside Joe, the great negotiator, we were able to finally get the bill to the floor for passage.
    When President Barack Obama asked me to serve as director of the CIA, Vice President Biden became a strong supporter of my efforts to combat the threats posed by al Qaeda and other extremist networks. I personally briefed him on the search for Osama Bin Laden, and he was one of the first to congratulate those of us involved in the successful mission to get America's most wanted criminal.
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    It was Joe who then encouraged me to accept the President's nomination to become Secretary of Defense. To persuade me, he invited me to lunch at the Vice President's house. The two of us talked about old times -- and the ongoing importance of service to the nation. I knew I was not going to get out of there without saying yes. And it was the Vice President who strongly supported opening up opportunities for women, minorities and the LGBTQ+ community to serve in the military during my tenure.
    But perhaps Joe's most important quality is his compassion for others. As director of the CIA, we suffered a tragic suicide bomber attack at Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven of our CIA officers. When their bodies were brought back to Dover Air Base, the Vice President was there to greet the returning heroes and grieve with their families.
      I will never forget Joe spending time with each of the families, consoling them and reminding them of the important mission their loved ones died to achieve. I believe those families found great comfort in knowing that we would never stop fighting for that mission.
      Joe now has the opportunity to serve our nation as President. He is without question incredibly experienced and qualified for the job. But his most important qualities go back to what made a man special in the eyes of my father -- that he can be trusted, that he has a big heart, that he is a "buon uomo."