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Paisano Panetta

These days, images of Leon Panetta are everywhere. As current director of the CIA and President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Panetta has been a political powerhouse for decades.

He always attracts news attention, especially when he was Pres. Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff from 1994 to 1997, or when he was crafting the U.S. budget package that would eventually result in the balanced budget of 1998.

Recently, Leon was in the spotlight again because, as CIA director, he’d presided over the hunt for and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world.

But my first memory of Leon Panetta was of a handsome young man with an incandescent smile and a dense mop of curly black hair. It was 1976, and he was a candidate trying to replace U.S. Rep. Burt Talcott.

Eventually, Leon would serve from 1977 to 1993 in that seat. But on that day in SLO, Leon was a Carmel attorney and former Republican who had worked for Richard Nixon. The savvy candidate was hustling for the substantial support he knew he’d need from San Luis Obispo County voters.

Then and on many days after that, Leon was waiting for an on-air interview with Fred Peterson, the locally legendary newsman at the radio stations where I was staff writer and copywriter.

I sat down next to Leon on the front stoop of the old ranch house, and we chatted, quickly discovering we’re both of Sicilian heritage and both love politics, people, coincidences and a nifty twist of words. He was fun to talk to, every time he came to the station.

His smile, then and now, was quick, broad and unquestionably sincere. Combined with his twinkling eyes and a ready laugh that was as contagious as a yawn at midnight, a relaxed Leon looks like the imp he can be.

We chatted often like that through the years, before and after his elections. But no matter how powerful and influential Leon became, he stayed the same: amazingly bright, quick, astute, scrupulously ethical and approachable. And while his attentions have extended out over the nation and the world, his laser focus always is on his constituents and their valid concerns of any size.

For instance, in the early 1980s, a military plane flew low over the sea, too near my mom’s Cambria home. Vibration from the plane rattled the house and cracked a large, expensive window.

Mom wanted the military to replace it, because the plane had been flying too low and too close. She worked her way up the armed-forces food chain, repeating her claim. Every time, she got the brush off.

One commander even described the pilots’ actions to her as “You know ma’am, boys will be boys.”

Finally, my politically astute, women’s-libber, palpably livid mother called Leon. As an infuriated constituent, she calmly explained what had happened, and he listened.

Within a week or so, she had a new window, paid for by the military. Base officials never admitted any blame, but they cut the check.

Much later, during Leon’s Clinton years, he was to be in San Luis Obispo at a reception honoring him and U.S. Rep. Lois Capps.

As a reporter, I had budget, environmental and other questions for him, but couldn’t stay for the official press conference following the event. I went through channels and received permission from Leon’s staff to interview him ahead of time, as he and Lois came into the reception.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hadn’t seen him since the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s dedication in 1992, and he’d soared into the political stratosphere since then.

I’d forgotten his incredible memory. As he strode into the Dallidet Adobe behind Capps, he spotted me waiting in the area ahead. His face lit up, and he threw open his arms to envelop me in a huge hug.

As we chatted once again, we easily slid into the verbal shorthand we’d developed in the past, but hadn’t had a chance to use in years. He’d become a political superstar, but he was still Leon, still fun to talk to and oh, so astute.

His picture may be everywhere today, but those fond images of one of Washington’s most powerful men will always burn brightest in my memory.