Martin Schram: Principled Panetta an icon in Washington

Scripps Howard News Service Published:

The case of Leon Panetta is the case of what can happen to a moderate Republican who incurs the wrath of the conservative wing of the Nixon administration. ...

-- Newsday, Feb. 27, 1970

A diverse crowd of famous public servants was gathered in the secretary of defense's spacious office in the E Ring of the Pentagon. They were putting their combined experience to work at helping President Barack Obama deal with America's latest and most urgent problems.

Obama's defense secretary was there, also his former CIA director, Bill Clinton's former White House chief of staff, Clinton's former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a former Democratic California congressman who chaired the House Budget Committee. Plus one more, who probably seems like the odd man out in that Obama-Clinton crowd but who actually contributes impressively to their collective wisdom: the former director of civil rights for Richard Nixon's Health, Education and Welfare Department.

... What Panetta had been trying to do was enforce civil rights laws and guidelines and see to it that no schools remained illegally segregated. His problem was that he was operating within the administration that, last year, had been willing to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to request a delay of Mississippi's desegregation deadline. ...

Yes, that gathering was really just Leon Panetta, working alone in his office. Panetta was all of the above -- a Republican before he became a Democrat, a Nixon man before he became a congressman from California, then a leading official in the administrations of Clinton and Obama.

In his final days in Washington, Panetta is still hard at work, helping Obama maintain continuity of command even as Panetta's designated successor, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, is playing defense at his Senate confirmation hearing, performing unevenly, with uncertain results.

For 46 years, he's served at the vortex of the most important and incendiary issues of his era. His eras, really. When he became a Democrat in 1971, it was not that he'd left the Republican Party but that he felt the Republicans had left him.

First in Congress, and then in the Clinton White House, he took the lead in shaping and shepherding the budget policies that gave America its first and only surplus in the modern era. Most recently, Panetta has lambasted Congress for potentially endangering U.S. security by creating a passive and massive budget sequester that includes unacceptable defense cuts.

He gets along famously with just about everyone on all sides and is usually the first to laugh at a joke -- especially if it is on him. But when it comes to principles, there is nothing passive about Panetta.

That was clear back when I met him in 1969 while covering the Nixon presidency for Newsday. He stood out from the claque of young Republicans I met who were willing to bend their beliefs to get ahead with the Nixon inner circle. He viewed school desegregation as a matter of law and principle that couldn't be compromised. So he'd have none of the Nixon team's Southern strategy political deal -- go slow on desegregation so Republicans could finally make inroads in the still-Democratic, still-significantly segregated South.

Panetta's principles cost him his first Washington job in 1970. But they made him an iconic Washington monument of excellence in governance ever since.

On that day, after the Nixon White House summarily accepted Panetta's (never formally tendered) resignation, I was leaving Panetta's office when I noticed a stack of old magazines and showed Panetta the one on top. Its cover story, about a senator caught in a scandal, consisted of three words in huge letters: "Should I resign?"

... Panetta broke into spasms of laughter when a visitor showed him the cover. "The story of my life," he said.

Hardly.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)

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