Washington - Maybe President Obama should have asked his Cabinet secretaries to sign book-royalty agreements when they took their oaths of office, so he could share in the spoils. Too late now: Here's Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and CIA director, publishing the third memoir by a top foreign policy official while Obama is still in office.

"Worthy Fights" is Panetta's addition to the Cabinet bookshelf, and it's very readable, with the frank descriptions of personalities and events that distinguish this genre at its best. There's no point in writing a cautious memoir, after all; Panetta's candor matches that of Robert M. Gates, his predecessor as secretary of defense, and he's a good deal franker than former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is presumptively running for president and still has to be nice to people.

Panetta confides that he thought Obama was wrong on some key decisions, just as Gates and Clinton did in their memoirs. Which makes this reader ask: Why did these officials continue to serve a president with whose policies they often seemed to disagree? Retrospective candor is fine, but wouldn't it have been better to speak out at the time and perhaps even resign on principle? The country would have been poorer without their service, but we need officials who will tell the truth publicly, in real time, before they make the book deal.

One more general gripe before we get down to the substance of Panetta's memoir: Who thinks of these titles? "Worthy Fights"? Come on. In the bland-title competition, that one tops Clinton's "Hard Choices" and Gates's "Duty." These book monikers are as inviting as a summons to the dentist.

What makes Panetta's engaging is that it's suffused with the personality of the man himself. Panetta is a scrappy, profane, devout, Italian American, Catholic mensch. He movingly describes his "peasant" father, who came to America from Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy; his grandfather, who carried young Leon on his shoulders through the streets of Monterey, Calif., where the family settled; a mother plucked from Calabria who worked at the family restaurant until 2 a.m. Panetta has never stopped being this man, rooted in family, culture and religion: When he's facing a hard decision, by his own account, he reaches for his rosary beads and says a Hail Mary.

The essential, uncensored Panetta emerges vividly when he describes his appointment as White House chief of staff in 1994 for the "undisciplined, almost chaotic" President Bill Clinton. Panetta asks his genial predecessor, Mack McLarty, for an organization chart and is informed that no such document exists. "Man, I thought to myself, I really am in deep now!"