Leon Panetta knows a little about Washington, D.C., having served 16 years in Congress and in a half-dozen administration positions under multiple presidents, both Republican and Democrat.
The Monterey native also knows a little about bipartisanship, having been a member of both major political parties during his long and storied career, and working in the nation’s capital when politicians from both sides of the aisle communicated and cooperated.
Given that history, Panetta, 78, is uneasy about what he is seeing now in Washington.
I think this country is at a turning point, and I don’t say that lightly.
Former congressman, CIA director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
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“I think this country is at a turning point, and I don’t say that lightly,” Panetta said in an interview ahead of a Wednesday morning speech at the Saroyan Theatre as part of the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall 2016-17 Daytime Lecture Series.
Based on the coming election, he says, the nation could take one of two paths.
The first is an “American renaissance,” in which the youths of today are given the skills needed to deal with 21st century innovation and technology, the nation develops a leaner but more agile defense, and the United States reasserts itself as “a world leader in a very troubled world.”
The other, Panetta says, is “an America in decline, facing crisis after crisis, politically dysfunctional and driven by fear, hate and prejudice.”
Panetta could lay this at the feet of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He has endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton, and is certainly no Trump fan. He likely won’t mention Trump during his speech, titled “Remarks on Our Nation,” but he expects he will be asked about the controversial real estate mogul.
“My history was always based on two parties who provided candidates who were qualified and experienced and had some sense of foreign policy and defense policy,” Panetta says.
Yes, he says, there may be ideological positions, “but both sides had people with some sense of what the presidency was all about. This is the first time a Republican candidate absolutely doesn’t show any of those qualifications or experience. I do not like presidential candidates who do not speak to the best of us. Right now this country needs to be healed. We have got to have someone willing to try and bring people together.”
Still, Panetta is looking at the bigger picture, and he says the electorate this year is increasingly angry and frustrated and distrustful about government, and the reason is the dysfunction in Washington.
“Today it is the worst I’ve seen it in 50 years,” he says. “The divisiveness and the partisanship.”
Congressional leaders can’t deal with important issues such as the budget, immigration reform, funding infrastructure, trade, or filling a current U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.
Panetta certainly has seen enough to know.
He started his political career in 1966 as a legislative aide to Sen. Thomas Kuchel, a California Republican. Three years later, he became part of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Richard Nixon. A short time later he was appointed director of the Office for Civil Rights.
Panetta left Washington in 1970, working first for New York City Mayor John Lindsay, and then in private law practice back in Monterey. In 1971, he switched from Republican to Democrat.
Today, too often people elected go to Washington unwilling to take the risks associated with finding compromise and consensus.
It was in 1976 that he was elected to Congress, and was there until shortly after winning his seventh term in office, when he resigned to take a job with President Bill Clinton.
Eventually, Panetta served as Clinton’s chief of staff, and then returned to be CIA director and then Defense Secretary during the Obama administration. He left that job in early 2013 and today continues as chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, which he co-founded in 1997.
“I’ve seen Washington at its best and Washington at its worst,” he says. “The good news is I’ve seen Washington work.”
Currently, Panetta said there is more world instability than at any time since the end of World War II. There is ISIS, failed or failing Middle East states such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, there is North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, a new chapter in the Cold War with Russia, China’s making territorial claims in the South China Sea and ongoing concerns with Iran, to name the big ones. And that doesn’t even include the growing threat of cyber attacks, he said.
All of this is happening at a time when Panetta questions U.S. leaders’ ability to govern.
“I really am a believer in the importance of leadership to take risks and sacrifice in order to do the right thing,” he said. “Today, too often people elected go to Washington unwilling to take the risks associated with finding compromise and consensus.”
Leon Panetta speaks
When: 10:30 a.m. Wednesday
What: San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series
Where: Saroyan Theatre
Tickets: $35 at the door (students free); season tickets available