Leon Panetta Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Leadership, Values, and the Changing Political Scene: Conversation with Leon Panetta, former member of the legislature and officer of the executive branch; 5/22/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Mr. Panetta, welcome to Berkeley.

Nice to be with you.

Where were you born and raised?

Born and raised in the district that I had the honor to represent. I was born in Monterey and raised largely in the Monterey area, went to schools in the Monterey area.

You went to Monterey High School?

I went to Monterey High School. I started off in Catholic grammar schools; I went to St. Carlos grammar school in Monterey, and then went over to the Mission, Carmel Mission School. Then to Monterey High School, a public high school, and from there went to Santa Clara.

Did you get involved in student government when you were in high school, or was that later?

People often ask me what was my inspiration to start to get involved in public service, and I would track it back to student activities in high school. I got involved in my class, working as a class officer. I was elected Vice President of the Student Body when I was a junior, and I was elected President of the Student Body when I was a senior. I enjoyed those responsibilities. I think participating in student politics planted the seed for interest in future politics.

How did your parents shape your character?

A great deal. They were Italian immigrants, and like many immigrants, came here with very little education, not a lot of skills. They didn't speak the language that well. My father had come in the twenties after World War I, worked in California (he had some brothers here), went back, married my mother, and came back in the early thirties. They were people who believed in working hard, so they gave me a work ethic; they were people who had a high sense of honesty, and they passed it on to me, that it was important to always be honest with people; and they gave me a sense of right and wrong. And it wasn't just them, it was also my Catholic education, and later on, my Jesuit education. But they gave me the fundamental values that were probably a hell of a lot more important in politics than a lot of the other things were.

Did they own a winery?

No, my father and mother first worked in a restaurant, then opened up their own restaurant in Monterey. My earliest recollections were washing glasses. I think I was about maybe five, six, seven years old, washing glasses in the back of that restaurant. They sold the restaurant after the war and bought this place in Carmel Valley, which is our family farm where we now live. My father was always interested in getting back to his roots, from his own heritage in Italy. So we really worked this twelve-acre walnut farm in Carmel Valley, and fortunately, it's where my wife and I now make our home.

When you were young do you recall any books that you read that influenced you?

I was always interested in trying to learn about people, and so as a result, some of the things I first started reading were from people who were from the area of Monterey. So Steinbeck interested me a great deal. I read a lot of Steinbeck; I read East of Eden and I read The Red Pony and Cannery Row, and I enjoyed that. And I used to read -- they're probably little known these days (you could probably get them on the Internet) -- but there was a Dave Dawson series that I used to read about his experiences in the war: Dave Dawson is in Britain, Dave Dawson Lands on Normandy, Dave Dawson.... That series kind of tracked the history of World War II, but it also gave me a sense of what it took to be involved, not only in the military, but in the politics of military policy.

Were you aware when you were reading Steinbeck that he was from your part of the country?

Yes, we always knew that. I always was aware that Steinbeck was from that area. Interestingly enough, there are other authors that come from there: Robert Louis Stevenson settled there, and Treasure Island was another book that I read. But we were always aware [of Steinbeck], particularly with Cannery Row. And, you know, the fishing industry was really what made Monterey -- at the beginning it was largely a town where Italians came to fish, and part of the fishing industry, and that related an awful lot to what Steinbeck wrote about. And so I became interested in that early on.

Any mentors that you recall from that period, either teachers or family members?

There was a teacher whose name was Mr. Watkins who was very interested in Steinbeck, it's probably what turned me on to Steinbeck. After Steinbeck died, he helped establish and protect one of the areas on Cannery Row that Steinbeck used to go to, and actually, I think, lived in Steinbeck's home on Cannery Row, and always used to talk about that. But he was a guy who taught me [a class] called "Problems in Democracy." It was a course in which you learned about politics. He was a great influence because he always presented a balanced approach. He never went off one way or the other way, but he presented the picture, and he did it very well. He also got us interested in current events, because to get involved in politics you have to be involved in current events. He did that through passing around Time magazine, passing around Life magazine, showing some of the clips and movies from politics. I'd have to say he was a great influence in my life.

I assume your parents were really pleased to see you go on to college and then to law school.

They had fought most of their life for security -- security for their family, security that they didn't really know in their own home country. I think they wanted both of their sons to have a secure life. I honestly believe that what drives a lot of the immigrants that came to this country is not so much improving their lives, but making sure that their children have a better life. That's the fundamental American Dream, improving the lives of your children. So they always wanted us to have a better life. As a consequence, my father thought that a better profession would be if I became a doctor or, at the very least, a dentist, because he always felt that was a secure way to make a living. I don't recall him ever saying [anything about] getting involved in politics. I think he was proud of the fact I got involved in politics, but his preference was that I be a lawyer. My mother's preference was... I played the piano, I played concert piano, and so she was interested in my becoming a concert pianist, and always encouraged me to do that because she thought that's what I ought to do. I rejected both and followed in my brother's footsteps, he became a lawyer. I thought by becoming a lawyer, that would give me the opportunity to look at a lot of other opportunities, so that's what I did.

There was nobody [else] in our family who was a lawyer, so it was really because we were sons of immigrants. But my brother decided to become a lawyer, and I decided as a result, that I'd follow in those steps, at least for now.

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