Leon Panetta B.S. ’60, J.D. ’63
Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director;
former Director, Panetta Institute for Public Policy
News: Panetta is confirmed as CIA director
In 1970, Leon Panetta B.A. ’60, J.D. ’63, a 32-year-old lawyer, was about to start a new job as director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, responsible for enforcement of civil rights and equal education laws.
Previously, he was a special assistant to Secretary Robert Finch at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Nixon administration. Prior to that, he had spent two years as an assistant to Senator Thomas Kuchel of California, his first job out of the Army. Kuchel was a moderate Republican, as was Panetta. While working for Kuchel, Panetta had drafted legislation relating to civil rights, leading to his appointment to the new position.
The position seemed to be an important one. The Vietnam War was raging. Race riots had erupted across the country after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil rights battles were being fought in schools, on the streets, and in prisons.
Panetta was ready to get to work, especially in the South, where racism was a deep tradition. But soon after swearing an oath to uphold the civil rights laws, he was informed that the Nixon administration had made a deal with the southern legislators, including Strom Thurmond, to “go slow” on the enforcement of the civil rights laws in the South because they were so controversial. This deal had a name as sweet as a mint julep: the “Southern Strategy.”
Panetta, a relative newcomer to politics, had to make one of the most important decisions of his life, what he describes as “a fundamental decision: whether to stand by my commitment to enforce the laws and do what I thought was right, or to back off from strong enforcement.”
In deciding what to do, he summoned the values he learned through his family and his education at SCU. “In politics there has to be a line beyond which you don’t go—the line that marks the difference between right and wrong, what your conscience tells you is right. Too often people don’t know where the line is. My family, how I was raised, my education at SCU, all reinforced my being able to see that line,” he says.
The decision to enforce the laws ultimately cost Panetta his job but he has never regretted it. Throughout his 35-plus year career in public service, he has continued to be guided by these ideals.
Panetta was born in Monterey, California, in 1938. His parents, both immigrants from Italy, worked in restaurants until they were able to open their own restaurant and buy a farm. Panetta and his two brothers washed dishes in the restaurant and worked on the farm as boys. From his early life he learned “the importance of family, of faith, of loyalty, of hard work, of caring for one another, of common sense.”
Panetta attended Catholic parochial schools and Monterey High School, where he was president of the student body. He earned a B.A. in political science from SCU, magna cum laude. At the law school, he was an editor of the Law Review. When Panetta left the Office for Civil Rights, he moved to New York to work as an assistant to Mayor John Lindsay. It was his last job as a Republican. He began seeing a shift of the Republican Party to more extreme positions, and switched to the Democratic Party. He then practiced law in Monterey from 1971 to 1976, when he was elected to Congress.
Panetta served eight terms in Congress as Representative from California’s 16th (now 17th) district. He authored the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988, the Fair Employment Practices Resolution extending civil rights protections to House employees, and legislation extending Medicare and Medicaid to hospice care for the terminally ill. In addition, he was successful in introducing legislation to protect the California coast, including the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Panetta is well known for his leadership on budgetary matters. He served on the House Committee on the Budget for 14 years and chaired it from 1989 to 1993. In 1993, he left Congress to become President Clinton’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. He is credited with developing the 1993 budget package that resulted in a balanced federal budget and a budget surplus. Subsequently, he became chief of staff to President Clinton and served in that position until 1997.
Panetta and his wife, Sylvia, who have three grown sons, now dedicate themselves to leadership and public policy. In 1998, they established the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy. Panetta also teaches a political science course at SCU each year.
Panetta sees leadership as having “several important ingredients: willingness to take risks, to make decisions about what needs to be done; willingness to be honest with the people who elect you and with yourself; and integrity, meaning doing what you say you are going to do and standing by it.”
As a leader, Panetta has the additional qualities of vision and a positive attitude toward the future. Throughout his writings, even when very critical of the current leadership of this country, he demonstrates a belief in its people and their values. “I believe in the fundamental goodness of people,” he says. “I believe that regardless of whether we are in red states or blue states, there are common values we share—the ability to educate children, to have a decent job, to care for the health of our parents and our children. These are all common issues that bring people together.”
Panetta served on SCU’s Board of Trustees from 1988-2009.