With the Obama/McCain presidential campaign getting ugly and the economy uncertain, let’s take a moment to look back at a local politician who was almost as popular with Republicans as Democrats. Not many can say both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton appointed them to their posts. Fewer can say they balanced the federal budget.
Leon Panetta came to Washington in 1966 as a legislative assistant to Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel. Kuchel was appointed to fill Nixon’s vacant seat when Dwight Eisenhower tapped the Yorba Linda resident to be his vice-president in 1952.
By the late 1960s, Panetta believed Nixon’s stump promises to enforce civil rights laws and accepted an appointment in 1969 to join his staff as the director of the office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Problem was Nixon said a lot of things he didn’t really believe.
Nixon was scheming to split Democratic voters and part of his strategy in 1968 was to say nice things to civil rights supporters while behind the scenes wooing segregationists like South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Having a civil rights director who enforced the law was a problem for a president who billed himself a law-and-order politician. Panetta was forced to resign.
This era was a struggle for voters and the souls of both parties. The evolutionary result was that many voters who thought like Thurmond changed their affiliation to Republican; many who thought like Panetta became Democrats.
Today’s TV talk show circuit often features voices like Pat Buchanan, a former Nixon speechwriter, but you won’t see moderate Republicans in the tradition of John Lindsay or Nelson Rockefeller; they are almost extinct.
In 1976, the now-Democrat Panetta ran for the 16th Congressional district and won. During the 16 years he represented Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and San Luis Obispo counties in Congress, he rose to chair the House Budget Committee and became an expert in the arcane federal budget process.
My introduction to the congressman was as a Cal Poly student. College campuses are not at the top of the list for visiting politicians. And why would they? Why waste time traveling to the corner of the district, talking to voters who have notoriously low turnout numbers, don’t have money to contribute and are always asking for lower student fees and more programs?
Could the answer be public service? Panetta was a good listener who answered pointed questions. He had both a sense of humor and was able to tell people what was realistic to expect.
He won over constituents by running an efficient office, returning money to the treasury rather than building a Washington empire. Quoting from a New York Times story from April 15, 1992:
“Mr. Panetta operates with unusual frugality, using his frequent-flyer mileage to finance much of his official travel and buying some of his own office furniture. He elicited snickering from some colleagues when he returned to the Treasury this year’s 4.2 percent cost-of-living raise.”
In a December 1992 perspective column longtime Telegram-Tribune staffer Warren Groshong wrote about the response the congressman gave to a letter from Wilmar Tognazzini.
“Less than a month later, Tognazzini found in his rural mailbox a three-page, single spaced personal letter – about 1,000 words- from Panetta.
The congressman said many of Tognazzini’s concerns were the same as his own.
“You may be interested to know,” Panetta wrote, “that my office has contacted the Postal Service to relate the concerns you have expressed.”
Panetta responded to each point of Tognazzini’s letter, explaining the background of each problem, what Congress has done about the problem and proposals about future solutions.
The letter was far more that Tognazzini ever expected to get from a busy congressman who was chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee.”
When Clinton’s first year began to drift and stall, he named Panetta as his chief of staff to help sharpen his policies and message. Clinton became the first president in a generation to balance the budget thanks in part to Panetta and averted a trajectory that doomed Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
Panetta resigned at the end of Clinton’s first term and now runs a nonpartisan center in Monterey for the study of public policy.
He is the only politician with more biography folders than Ronald Reagan in the Tribune library.
Panetta was quoted in a Jan Greene story from April 12 of 1991.
Although Panetta obviously loves his work, he acknowledges the 16-hour days can only go on for so long.
“You can’t keep it up forever,” he says with a smile. “It makes it hard to sit down and enjoy life.”
Fiscal responsibility, competence, hard work and a sense of fairness for all constituents, that’s what I want from my elected officials.