Conan Nolan, NBC4 LA's chief political correspondent, reflects on CIA Director Leon Panetta's brush with the California governor's office.
Rarely does the U.S. Senate coronate a cabinet nominee. Still, this may be exactly what happens when Leon Panetta, the current Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, formally seeks the job of Defense Secretary.
The death of Osama Bin Laden may have just earned the CIA director a unanimous confirmation.
And to think he could have been in Sacramento instead.
In his waning days as Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff back in 1996, Leon Panetta had a nickname. Everybody, including the president, called him "Governor."
Panetta, who may have seen the Monica Lewinsky scandal around the corner, had decided he would seek a job in government far from Washington. He was headed back to his ranch on Carmel Valley Road in Monterey where he would plot a race for governor of his native state. With Republican Pete Wilson leaving office, the seat would be vacant and the voters might be ready for a Democrat.
The campaign never took place. Panetta had been forced to wait until U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein made up her mind about also seeking the seat. Feinstein was considered the de facto nominee of the party if she wanted to be governor of California, which she had sought previously. Eventually she decided to stay in the Senate but her decision took so long that by then Panetta’s chances of raising enough money to compete had all but vanished.
The office instead went to Gray Davis.
Panetta instead retreated to Cal State Monterey Bay (the old Ft. Ord) where he set up a think tank called the "Panetta Institute" and tried to stay active until the next opportunity arrived. Barack Obama’s election was his ticket back to D.C. which had already become sort of a second home.
I first met Leon Panetta when he was a Monterey attorney in 1975. My brother was the Democratic Party chairman in San Luis Obipso County, which was paired with Monterey as part of the 16th Congressional District. Panetta had come to talk over a possible run for the House of Representatives.
I remember at the time being impressed. Democrats normally didn’t field strong candidates in that part of the state. In fact, Panetta hadn’t been a Democrat for very long. A few years back he had been a Republican working worked for Senator Tom Kuchel and New York Mayor John Lindsay. He turned on the Republican party after being fired by the Nixon White House in the early 70’s. Panetta at the time was head of the "Office of Civil Rights" in the department of Health Education and Welfare and appeared to be too strident in his attempts to enforce desegregation in southern schools (he wrote a book about his tenure in the Nixon administration called "Bring Us Together").
Panetta defeated longtime Republican incumbent Burt Talcott in 1976. Not long after that I was covering him as cub reporter in radio and in television. And while he was the regions first Democratic Congressman in decades, Panetta followed the path of the centrist politicians whom he had long admired.
He was big on the environment, with legislation protecting the California coast from offshore oil drilling and over fishing. He was also big on agriculture. Panetta once sought a farm labor guest worker program that infuriated non other than Ceasar Chavez, who attacked Panetta, saying he was trying to bring back the much hated Brocero guest worker program of the 40s and 50s.
As chairman of the Budget Committee Panetta developed a reputation as a spending hawk while authoring such measures as the "Hunger Prevention Act."
All of which was done with an infectious laugh and charm that made Panetta one of the most popular members of Congress. A reputation that will no doubt help him navigate the most complex agency of the American government: the Pentagon.
At 72, this is likely Panetta’s last Washington gig. But given the age of the current Governor of California perhaps the former Monterey lawyer may still harbor a desire to work closer to home. Jerry Brown hasn't said if he will seek a second term but if he doesn’t what are the chances another political vet, nearly his same age could still be interested in the job.