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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Being in Politics

Did the skills you developed at law school help you for what you did down the road in all of these positions in Washington?

Oh, I don't think there's any question.

I believe that the fundamental purpose of education is to give you a process of thinking. It's not the dates and the facts that you learn so much as the process of thinking as you approach challenges and problems in society. Legal thinking, the whole process of analyzing a case, a factual situation, looking at both sides, looking at what the facts are, looking at what the legal arguments are, looking at what applies in the situation, and then the capacity to argue a position for or against something, based on what you can determine are the facts in the law: that process is invaluable in politics, and that's probably what attracts a lot of lawyers to politics. Because politics and certainly legislating is the process of looking at a situation, determining what course you take, determining what the arguments are for or against it, and then making those arguments.

And then in the end, coming up with a settlement that establishes a new variation on the rules about how we will live together.

That's right, and then resolving that issue. Because in trials you resolve issues, in law you resolve issues, and in politics, hopefully, you resolve issues, so that you can try to find something that solves whatever problem you're confronting.

Your first role in politics, or one of your first roles, was as a staff member for Senator Thomas Kuchel, who was a liberal Republican from California. What did you learn from him?

A great deal.

California has a rich history -- you wouldn't know it so much now -- but it has a rich history of what I would call "progressive Republicanism." It started with Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, and Tom Kuchel basically followed in that path. Kuchel was elected to the Senate, or actually selected to the Senate by Earl Warren when Nixon became vice president. Kuchel was one of these individuals. His parents, too, were immigrants, they were hard workers, and he believed deeply in what this country was about.

Probably the first indication [I had] that he was a good guy is that -- I had no political connections, I was in the army, getting out -- and I went back to Washington. I did not know anybody in Washington but Joe Califano, who was an assistant to President Johnson at the time. I had read about Joe Califano, so I wrote him and said, "I don't know you. I'm very proud of you as an Italian. I happen to be Italian. Is there a way for me to get involved in government?" Sure enough, he wrote and set up some appointments. So I went back, and I was still in the army. I went to the Justice Department, I went to the Pentagon, I went to other agencies, and I decided I wanted to go to Capitol Hill. So I walked into Kuchel's office; they had an opening for a legislative assistant. I didn't know the senator, I didn't know anybody there. They looked at my background; he liked the fact that I was a lawyer, he liked the fact that I had been in the army, and he hired me. He brought me into his office soon after he hired me -- and it is something that has always stuck with me throughout my political career -- and he said, essentially, "Look, you're going to be subject to a lot of temptation in this town. You're a legislative assistant, they're going to go after you. They'll give you lunches, they'll give you gifts to try to influence me. But the fundamental reason we are here is to serve the public interest of the citizens of California and the nation. The other thing that you've got to remember is that in the morning, you've got to look at yourself in the mirror. And so you always have to do what's right for the people." I never forgot that. He was a tremendous role model for me because he made decisions based on what he thought was right for the people. He voted for civil rights, he voted for labor protections for people; offended an awful lot of people in his own party, but did it because he thought it was right.

Did you start as a Republican?

Yes, I did. I was a Republican when I went to work for him.

But then later in your career you decided to go over to the Democratic Party. After you were already a Congressperson?

No, no.

I was a Republican when I worked for Senator Kuchel, and then I began to see the changes that were going on in the Republican Party. A fellow named Max Rafferty here in California ran against Tom Kuchel. He was a right-wing Republican, the first of that breed who started coming along. He defeated Kuchel in a primary, and then he lost to Alan Cranston in November. Kuchel would have clearly won in November, but that didn't happen. So that was the first problem I saw, that the Republicans were going after their own if they exercised too independent a judgment. Then I was asked to come down and work at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as an assistant to Secretary Finch -- this was in the Nixon administration. Soon after, I was appointed Director of the Office for Civil Rights, because I had worked on civil rights legislation on Capitol Hill for the senator. At that time, the administration had developed the "southern strategy," which was a political strategy in which the president had told people like Strom Thurmond, "We're going to go slow on civil rights enforcement" because civil rights were so controversial in the South. And here I was, Director of the Office for Civil Rights, while that kind of political deal had been made! But I made the judgment -- and it probably, again, was based on the experiences I had with Kuchel and my own values -- I made the judgment that the law was the law, I was going to enforce the law as Director of the Office for Civil Rights. The South needed to go beyond the dual school system. And ultimately it cost me my job because I did that.

The question is, when did I then become a Democrat? After I left the Office for Civil Rights, I went to work for John Lindsay, who was Mayor of New York City, also another liberal Republican. And it was when I was in New York City, and again continued to see the party beginning to move away from the center -- Spiro Agnew campaigned against Charlie Goodell, who was a Republican running for the Senate in New York, because he was too liberal; they were working against civil rights legislation. And as a consequence, I decided that I would become a Democrat when I was there -- this would be in the early seventies, '71. And I did it because I thought that the Democrats had a larger tent in which they would respect the views that I had developed as a Republican.

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