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Getting fired by Nixon turned out pretty well for Leon Panetta

In a Sept. 4, 1995, photo, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, center, introduces President Bill Clinton at the dedication of Cal State Monterey Bay. At right is Cal State Monterey Bay’s president, Peter Smith.
In a Sept. 4, 1995, photo, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, center, introduces President Bill Clinton at the dedication of Cal State Monterey Bay. At right is Cal State Monterey Bay’s president, Peter Smith. The Tribune

Being fired or forced to resign by a president can be the best thing to happen to a person.

It certainly didn’t hurt the career of Leon Panetta.

In 1970, the Monterey Republican, age 31, was forced out of his job, head of the Department of Health Education and Welfare’s Civil Rights Division. (Health Education and Welfare was replaced by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education.)

A Feb. 23, 1970, UPI story quoted Panetta: “The issue is a fair break in education for the kids who have lost out time and again because of rank discrimination. The issue is the future of this nation’s race relations, and no amount of escape from the reality will change those issues for us.”

Turns out President Richard Nixon was not at all interested in making sure the civil rights of minorities were protected.

Nixon’s Southern Strategy was an effort to appeal to Southern segregationists and bring them over from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party to the Republican side.

Panetta was ruining that strategy and, as a result, was the first major Washington official to break with Nixon.

Nixon’s enemies list would become longer over the years and a badge of honor for many.

In 1971, Panetta switched party registration from Republican to Democrat, and the son of Italian immigrants returned to California to practice law.

He would be elected to the 16th Congressional District, defeating seven-term Republican incumbent Burt Talcott.

Panetta won and would often visit Cal Poly or other district meeting places to answer constituent concerns. As a congressman, he was a staunch advocate for the environment and government accountability, and conservatives liked his budget responsibility.

Frugality was a mark of his tenure, he used less than his allotted budget and returned funds to the treasury at the end of a fiscal year.

Reporters found him accessible and willing to answer questions.

He was re-elected eight times and rose to chairmanship of the House Budget Committee, one of the most powerful seats in Washington.

He would later serve President Bill Clinton as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

He brought needed focus to an administration that started wobbly when he moved to the chief of staff position in the White House.

Panetta left at the end of Clinton’s first term, a year before the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair became a public scandal.

Panetta then held a variety of public and private roles for more than a decade, returning to Washington as director of the CIA under President Barack Obama.

It was during his leadership that Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks, was located and killed in a raid by U.S. Navy Seals.

In June 2011, he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate as secretary of defense.

His most recent book is “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace,” co-authored with Jim Newton.

The book includes a critique of the Obama administration’s moves in the Middle East.

An Amazon review from a former Cal Poly student identified as J. White says, “There is a lot going around now that says this book bashes Obama. I disagree. Liberals and conservatives alike take a beating. You need to read the entire book to understand where he is coming from.”

Bob Anderson wrote this story when Panetta’s congressional career was launched Oct. 22, 1975:

Lawyer seeks Demo support for 16th congressional race

Monterey lawyer Leon Panetta today announced he will seek the 1976 Democratic nomination for the 16th Congressional District seat held by seven-term Rep. Burt Talcott, R-Salinas.

The district covers the northern part of San Luis Obispo County — including the city of San Luis Obispo and Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.

Panetta, 37, has been considering the race publicly for several months. It will be his first campaign for elective office other than a 1974 election to the Monterey County Democratic Central Committee. His experience in government includes service as legislative assistant to former U.S. Sen. Thomas H. Kuchel, special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, and executive assistant to Mayor John Lindsay of New York City.

Panetta, then a Republican, was forced to resign from the Nixon administration in 1970 because his effort to enforce civil rights law were contrary to presidential policy of going easy on desegregation. A statement from his campaign office describes him as “the first major Washington official to break with the Nixon Administration.” In August he described the incident to the Telegram-Tribune as “a typical Haldeman-Ehrlichman squeeze play.”

“My commitment is not to the status quo,” Panetta said in a prepared statement announcing his candidacy.

“My commitment is to the people.”

Panetta listed four “deep frustrations and acute concerns”:

▪  “Families fear that they cannot afford the next tax bill or doctor’s bill or loaf of bread or gallon of gasoline.

▪  “Citizens are losing touch with their government because of an ever-growing snarl of red tape and maze of bureaucracies which undermine the very nature of our democratic process.

▪  “People are desperately trying to hold the line on their jobs and daily budgets while congressmen, legislators and others reap higher salaries and profits.

▪  “Our most treasured resources of land, air and water are being lost because of waste and poor planning.”

“We are governed today not with wisdom, but by crisis,” he said. “A Watergate produces alarm over honesty and openness in government. … A New York City must go broke before we recognize the depth of our economic and social problems.”

He said “the time has come to roll up our sleeves and get to work on the tough challenges we face.” He did not offer specific programs.

Panetta did not mention Talcott by name but made apparent references to the incumbent several times.

“The hard reality of today’s frustrations and challenges cannot be veiled by noncommittal press releases or questionnaires that say nothing. … A representative … must have the courage to tell the people where he stands and how he will vote. He must have the willingness to hear the good as well as the bad. …We do not have this type of representation in the 16th District today.”

He said he will conduct an “unusual” campaign, by listening to and meeting people throughout the district, “but not in the usual frantic pace and superficial style. … I will not just shake hands and mumble pleasantries while glancing impatiently at my watch.”

Panetta was born and reared in the Monterey area. He lives with his wife and three sons on the Carmel Valley ranch where he grew up.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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