As a former congressman, White House chief of staff, head of the CIA, and secretary of defense, Panetta faced down temptations to take shortcuts or do the politically expedient thing—and that core held him true. That moral truth, that conscience, is something he thinks the next generation is going to need, too.
“I always had deep down inside of me that sense of right and wrong. And I made decisions that I thought were right, sometimes costing me my job,” Panetta says.
He is in a conference room at the Panetta Institute, a political think tank he founded at California State University, Monterey Bay, a campus born on the bones of the former Fort Ord Army base by policy he helped craft. He’s in a reflective mood.
One such inflection point came in 1969, Panetta says.
It is the year his third child, son James Panetta J.D. ’96, was born. The year Panetta’s mother died. It found him far from his Monterey Bay home.
Panetta had moved his young family—wife Sylvia and two kids—to Washington, D.C. After a few years as a legislative assistant to Thomas Kuchel, a member of the U.S. Senate from California, he landed a position in the new Nixon administration.
By March 1969 Panetta had moved from assistant to the secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to director of the department’s Office of Civil Rights—the person charged with enforcing school desegregation laws, among other things. He was 31.
Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act schools could get money to desegregate, while those that failed to desegregate would lose all federal funding. “That was the hammer I had,” Panetta says. “I knew those laws. And I was committed to them.”
At this time, American politics were shifting. Strom Thurmond, representing South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, had made his switch from Democrat to Republican. In 1957, he delivered a 24-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of that year. In 1968, Thurmond campaigned hard for Nixon—an act that reassured white Southerners enriched by generations of Jim Crow laws that the former vice president from California saw things their way, even as Nixon spoke in support of desegregation.
“We were dealing with all of the Southern states that had for almost 200 years segregated white from black children,” Panetta says. It was Panetta’s job to begin to fix that wrong, using the Civil Rights Act.