Leon E. Panetta

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Leon E. Panetta

Leon E. Panetta (born 1938) served in the House of Representatives for 16 years before President Bill Clinton appointed him director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1993. In July 1994 Panetta moved into the White House as chief of staff to the president.

Leon E. Panetta was born in Monterey, California, on June 28, 1938, to Italian immigrant parents, Carmelo Frank and Cramelina Maria (Prochilo) Panetta. His parents operated a restaurant until 1947, when they sold it and bought a walnut ranch in Carmel Valley. It was there that Leon and his older brother lived as teenagers. He attended grammar school at a Catholic mission school and graduated from Monterey High School in 1956. Panetta then enrolled at the University of Santa Clara. Panetta graduated magna cum laude in 1960 and received a law degree three years later from the University of Santa Clara Law School. After graduating from law school, he married Sylvia Marie Varni. She bore him three sons: Christopher, Carmelo, and James. During these years Panetta supported Republican Richard M. Nixon in both his presidential and gubernatorial races (1960 and 1962, respectively).

In 1964 Panetta was commissioned in the United States Army, rising from second lieutenant to captain during his three-year stint. He served first at Fort Benning, Georgia and eventually as chief of operations and planning for the intelligence section at Fort Ord, California. He also acted as legal counsel in court-martial cases. It was during his military service that Panetta became sensitized to the evil consequences of prejudice and racial discrimination.

After his discharge from the Army in 1966, the 28-year-old Panetta became an aide to moderate Republican Thomas H. Kuchel, U.S. senator from California. He helped to draft the open housing bill of 1968. When his boss lost his bid for reelection in 1968, Panetta joined the Nixon transition team on matters relating to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). Shortly after, he agreed to serve under Nixon's HEW secretary, Robert Finch, as special assistant for civil rights. Several months after that appointment Finch promoted Panetta to director of the Office of Civil Rights.

In this position Panetta had responsibility for desegregating the 515 southern school districts that had refused to comply with earlier federal orders to do so. However, Nixon's strategy to establish the South as a Republican stronghold worked against Panetta's efforts to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and led to his forced resignation on February 17, 1970. Disturbed by Panetta's departure, 125 HEW civil rights personnel signed a petition protesting the Nixon administration's actions.

On May 26, 1970, he joined New York City mayor John V. Lindsay as an executive assistant for intergovernmental relations. After serving in that position for five months, Panetta returned to Monterey, where he established the law firm Panetta, Thompson and Panetta. Now as a declared Democrat, Panetta served for six years as counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (starting in 1971) and became a member of the Monterey County Democratic Central Committee between 1972 and 1974.

In 1976 he won the Democratic nomination for the 16th (now the 17th) Congressional District and defeated Republican incumbent Burt I. Talcott, receiving 53 percent of the vote. This victory began a 16-year tenure in the House of Representatives, where he won reelection every time by at least 61 percent of the vote. In Congress he developed a reputation as a fiscal conservative, often willing to side with Republicans in decreasing spending on domestic policies. Yet he supported abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment for women. In foreign affairs Panetta consistently opposed defense and foreign policy initiatives promoted by President Ronald Reagan, especially financial aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. He also voted against authorizing President George Bush to use armed force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

During his service in Congress the soft-spoken Californian earned the respect of both Republican and Democratic colleagues for his command of budgetary details, his honesty, and his willingness to forgo politically popular decisions to achieve long-term goals. After serving on the House Budget Committee since 1978, Panetta became chair of that important committee in 1989 and emerged as a key player in the budget negotiations with the Bush administration.

Panetta's constant call for spending constraints differentiated him from most Democrats. His deep knowledge of financial matters, as well as his political courage and unsparing realism, help explain why President Bill Clinton nominated Panetta for director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). At the confirmation hearing in January 1993, Panetta stressed that he would make reducing the federal deficit his top priority. The Senate confirmed him on January 21, 1993. In 1993 he was given the Peter Burnett Award for Distinguished Public Service.

As head of OMB Panetta helped the Clinton administration pass the hard-fought budget bill of 1993 (it passed the House by one vote) and the easily passed budget bill of 1994. In July of 1994 Panetta was appointed chief of staff to President Clinton. He served in this position for the next two and one half years, helping to bring order and discipline to the Clinton White House. In November 1996, Panetta announced his resignation as chief of staff. He will be remembered for his many years of service in Congress as well as his integral role in federal budget negotiations.

Further Reading

No biography exists for Panetta, but a book he wrote with Peter Gall, Bring Us Together: The Nixon Team and the Civil Rights Record (n.d.), provides material on his conflict with Nixon during his tenure as director of the Office of Civil Rights. □