Leon Panetta life and biography

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Leon Panetta biography

Date of birth : 1938-06-28
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Monterey, California, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-06-24
Credited as : Government official, White House Chief of Staff, Obama administration

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Leon Panetta (also known as: Leon Edward Panetta, Leon E. Panetta) born June 28, 1938 in Monterey, California, United States is an American government official.

Leon Panetta was named White House Chief of Staff on July 17, 1994, during a period of time when the Clinton presidency was perceived by many to be faltering in its sense of direction and purpose. There was also grave concern in the White House that that summer's battle over health care reform would run into serious opposition. It was hoped that Panetta, as a longtime member of Congress, would be helpful in persuading legislators to approve what was arguably the major policy goal of the Clinton administration. Perhaps the highest hope for Panetta, however, was that he would provide what many commentators had suggested was a lack of discipline in the White House. Bill Clinton's presidency up to that time had been marked by several instances of indecision and it was thought that a major cause of this was the president's tendency to allow debate to continue well beyond what was necessary. One possible cause seemed to be that the president's original chief of staff, Mack McLarty---a childhood friend of Clinton's from Arkansas---didn't exercise enough control over access to the president. This left a legion of advisers with nearly unlimited means to push their particular agendas. This was especially problematic for Clinton, who is known to relish long, theoretical discussions. Panetta resigned as chief of staff in November 1996.

Panetta's first moves as chief were in staff management. He moved to curtail the frequency and duration of what Time described as "typical Clinton gabfests---meetings without set agendas filled with non-essential people taking up too much of the president's time." Panetta also established a new routing system for memos to the president, which now must go through his office before Clinton sees them, and he put himself in charge of scheduling meetings with the nation's chief executive. In addition, to further control presidential access, Panetta installed his deputy in an office outside Clinton's office.

Panetta is the son of an Italian immigrant father who worked in the copper mines of Wyoming before moving his young family to the coastal, northern California town of Monterey. Here the family opened an Italian restaurant that became popular in the immigrant community and among the military at Fort Ord, a local army base. In 1947 the elder Panetta sold the restaurant and with the money he made he bought a walnut ranch in Carmel Valley. Leon Panetta and his older brother spent their high school years here; the former still lives part of the year on the ranch. The family was devoutly Roman Catholic and worshipped every Sunday at the local church, where as a youth Panetta also attended parochial school.

Panetta began his career in politics as a Republican. In an interview in the New Yorker, he discussed his early political views and their origin. "I was raised in California when the whole tenor of the state was progressive Republicanism. Earl Warren [governor of California and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court] was someone I grew up with, who believed in civil rights and always represented public service to me." In that spirit, Panetta took a job as a legislative aide to California's Republican senator, Thomas H. Kuchel, then the minority whip. In 1968, when Richard Nixon brought the Republican Party back to the White House for the first time in eight years, Panetta was offered a position in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), as the secretary's special assistant for civil rights. In 1970 he was appointed the director of the Office for Civil Rights, a department within HEW.

Panetta had for some time been concerned with the civil rights movement. While in the army he was stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, where he saw firsthand the segregationist policies then rampant in the South. As director of the Office for Civil rights, he understood it to be his job to implement the court-mandated school desegregation in the 515 school districts in the South that were refusing to integrate. As he worked toward this end, however, he was thwarted again and again by others within the Nixon administration---including then-vice-president Spiro T. Agnew and attorney general John Mitchell---who saw desegregation as politically damaging among the large number of white southerners who had backed George Wallace's 1968 independent presidential bid. Wallace had run on a platform of continued segregation and had attracted substantial support, which Nixon coveted. Panetta ran up against this intransigence for several months and then was finally forced to resign in February of 1971. This move caused a furor in the Office for Civil Rights; 125 of Panetta's co-workers signed a letter of protest. Panetta switched political parties shortly after. As he told the New Yorker, "The [Republican] Party started moving to Southern strategies. The worst thing I saw was Spiro Agnew campaigning against Charles Goodell [a liberal Republican senator from New York]. You could see the Party beginning to eat itself up from the inside." Panetta chronicled his experiences as director of the Office for Civil Rights in the 1971 book Bring Us Together.

In May of 1970 Panetta took a position as executive assistant to New York Mayor John Lindsay. In this position he worked to help the city get state and federal aid. He didn't stay in this job long, however, and later in 1971 he returned home to Monterey, where he started the law firm Panetta, Thompson, & Panetta. He remained in the private sector for several years and then in 1976 ran for Congress in California's 16th District. In the Democratic primary, Panetta first defeated John R. Bakalian, and then defeated the incumbent Republican in the general election with 53 percent of the vote.

In California's Congress Panetta quickly established a reputation as a shrewd budgetary hawk. He consistently voted to reign in excessive government spending, at times voting against programs cherished by the Democratic leadership. He was given a seat on the House Budget Committee in his second term, a position he would hold until 1985. In 1989 he returned to the committee as chairman. Other committees Panetta chaired during his time in Congress include the House Agriculture Committee's subcommittee on domestic marketing, consumer relations, and nutrition; the House Administration Committee's subcommittee on personnel and police; and the Select Committee on Hunger's task force on domestic hunger. He also served as vice-chairman of the Caucus of Vietnam-Era Veterans in Congress.

Panetta's voting record was generally liberal on social and environmental issues, although there have been a few exceptions. In 1982 he voted against a proposal to divert $4.85 billion from the defense budget to sustain Medicare at current levels; and in 1983 he voted to grant coal companies federal power of eminent domain. Overall, however, Panetta was a reliable voice for social and environmental concerns. He authored the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988 and the Fair Employment Practices Resolution, which extended civil rights protections to employees of the House for the first time. He has been a staunch opponent of oil and gas exploration in the waters off the California coast and was instrumental in creating the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in his home district. He was also the author of legislation that provided Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for hospice care for the terminally ill.

On foreign policy and defense issues, Panetta was a consistent dove. He repeatedly voted against funding the civil wars and rebel insurgencies in Central America that were the passion of the Ronald Reagan administration. He voted in opposition to many Pentagon weapons systems as well---a show of political bravery, since California's economy is heavily dependent on the defense industry. In 1988 he voted to divert $400 million from NASA's budget to various programs for the homeless; the measure was defeated.

Panetta's most vocal positions in Congress, however, were those taken in his quest to slow the growth of the federal deficit. In this area he has consistently adopted maverick, politically dangerous stands. One such instance was in 1981, when Panetta and a few others on the House Budget Committee suggested limiting cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) paid to Social Security recipients---a politically suicidal suggestion, according to conventional wisdom. In 1985 Panetta supported a similar measure which not only capped COLAs but also increased taxes by $12 billion dollars. He was one of only 56 members of the House to vote in favor of this measure. One of Panetta's most visible maneuvers as chairman of the Budget Committee was as a key player in the 1990 budget summit at which President George Bush was persuaded to renege on his "no new taxes" pledge.

When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, one of the hallmarks of his agenda was to begin cutting the massive federal deficit that had exploded during the Reagan/Bush years. In December of 1992 he named Panetta as his director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Few were surprised by the choice, and many saw in it evidence that the president was serious about cutting the deficit, an enduring passion of Panetta's. U.S. News & World Report described Panetta's reputation in Washington: "The bipartisan accolades describe him as a truth-teller who recommends tough budget choices and who understands the need to push shared sacrifice." Such political bravery was further underlined in the article: "He cut federal spending for a building in his own...district." In an interview in Mother Jones, Panetta described his thoughts as he assumed his directorship: "In the eighties, Reagan and OMB Director David Stockman and others promised us Valhalla, where you could cut taxes and increase defense spending and balance the budget all at the same time. Nobody's kidding anybody now. What we're saying to the American people is straight: we've got to cut benefits and raise taxes, particularly on the wealthy."

Panetta's first tests at OMB were the development of the president's budget and his economic stimulus plan. Both measures faced strong opposition in Congress, especially the economic stimulus plan, which was nearly universally opposed by Republicans and had a sizable opposition among conservative Democrats as well. The stimulus plan sought to spend $16 billion on various job-producing programs to bolster the nation's infrastructure and stimulate the economy. It was criticized, however, for being too expensive, adding too much to the deficit, and being unnecessary in an economy that had posted a 4.8 percent growth rate in the previous quarter. The measure ultimately ran up against a Republican filibuster in the Senate before going down to defeat in both houses. Reflecting on the politically costly defeat in the Washington Post, Panetta said, "Probably the president's greatest frustration now---and it may be the transition from Arkansas governor to president---is that as governor he knew what he wanted and how to get it done. Coming here, he's got a whole agenda of things he wants to do, but it's a different ball game. You've got to work with a Congress that's a much different operation."

The Clinton budget faced much the same opposition in Congress, especially over increases in the tax rates for those individuals making over $250,000 a year. Panetta again lobbied furiously for passage of the budget and the deficit reduction measure included in it. The fight was long and hard---seven months from its introduction to its passage---but eventually it went in the president's favor. The measure passed in the House by a vote of 218 to 216 and in the Senate by 51 to 50, with vice-president Al Gore casting the deciding vote.

As the Clinton presidency began to falter in 1994, there was much discussion in Washington about ways to revive it. A reshuffling of the White House staff was often mentioned. In the New Republic, Fred Barnes wrote that Mack McLarty, Clinton's original chief of staff, was "wrong for the job, inexperienced in working with Congress, and ill-suited to crack the whip on White House aides or Clinton himself." Most commentators had similar things to say about McLarty. In the Spring, in recognition of his limitations in the post, McLarty himself suggested that he leave and that Panetta be named as his replacement.

When first approached about the job, Panetta was reluctant. Chiefs of staff have notoriously difficult jobs and are often used as presidential scapegoats. Vice-president Al Gore played a pivotal role in persuading the OMB director to consider the job. Clinton and Panetta discussed it briefly during the president's trip to Normandy in early June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe. It was not until a month later, though, that Panetta was formally offered the job, and he didn't accept until he was assured that he would have full authority over the staff. The New Republic quoted Panetta as saying that his role model for the office of chief of staff is James Baker, Ronald Reagan's chief and George Bush's Secretary of State. "Baker had the full trust and confidence of the President, and he ran a tight ship," Panetta said.

Indications are that Panetta was successful in the areas of staff management and time control. The period immediately after his appointment saw the administration take clearer stands on important issues. Where he has appeared to be less successful is in an area in which most everyone thought he would excel: relations with Congress. Panetta has many powerful friends in the House, where members of his "class"---those elected with him in 1976 for the first time---include Richard Gephardt and David Bonior. One major and embarrassing setback in this area was the early August near-defeat of a much-heralded crime bill. Panetta had been lobbying hard for its passage, and it seemed to be virtually assured of smooth sailing. But then on a procedural vote the House voted not to send it to the floor for final approval after it had gone to a House-Senate conference. The vote took everyone by surprise, including the House Democratic leadership. It was suggested that Panetta may have been relying too heavily on Democratic leaders, rather than doing any vote-counting and arm-twisting on the rank-and-file level. It did, however, pass, with much eleventh-hour tension on the part of the administration.

Panetta's role intensified after the November 1994 elections, in which Republicans overwhelmingly won back majorities in both houses. This turn of events dealt a serious blow to the Clinton presidency, despite some very solid presidential decision-making during that time, particularly with regard to Jean Bertrand-Aristide's reinstatement as Haiti's democratic leader, and U.S. reaction to Iraqi military leader Saddam Hussein's jostling for stronger position in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Panetta navigated some very troubled political waters, using all that his long and varied career had taught him. In November 1996, Panetta resigned as chief of staff. He planned moved back to California and start on the lecture circuit.


Born June 28, 1938, in Monterey, CA; son of Carmelo Frank (a restaurant owner and farmer) and Carmelina Maria (Prochilo) Panetta; married Sylvie Marie Varni; children: Three grown sons. Education: University of Santa Clara, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1960; University of Santa Clara Law School, J.D., 1963. Religion: Roman Catholic. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, served as a first lieutenant, 1964-66.


NEA Lincoln Award, 1969; A. Philip Randolph Award, 1971; Bread of the World Award, 1978, 1980, and 1982; National Hospice Organization Award, 1984; Farm Bureau Federation Golden Plow Award, 1988; Food Research and Action Center Award, 1991; Coastal Zone Foundation Coastal and Ocean Management Award, 1991; American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages President's Award, 1991; Peter Burnett Award for distinguished public service, 1993.


Admitted to the Bar of California, 1963; legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Thomas H. Kuchel of California, the Senate minority whip, 1966-69; special assistant to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1969; director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, 1970; executive assistant to New York Mayor John Lindsay, 1970-71; attorney in private practice with Panetta, Thompson & Panetta, 1971-76; representative from California's 16th (now 17th) District, 1976-93; director of the Office of Management and Budget, 1993; White House chief of staff, 1994-96.


* Bring Us Together, 1971.

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