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A sense of duty
Leon Panetta hopes to inspire SCU students into public service
Former Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63, has lived the news that Santa Clara students read about in political science textbooks.
He served from 1977 to 1993 in the House of Representatives; he directed the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton, for whom he also served as chief of staff; he chaired the Pew Oceans Commission; and he is a regular on Sunday morning talk shows.
But to some SCU students he is Mr. Panetta, an adjunct faculty member in SCU’s Department of Political Science. Every fall quarter, Panetta teaches a class that meets from 1:45-3:30 p.m. once a week.
Panetta jumped at an invitation from SCU classmate and current SCU President Paul Locatelli, S.J.’60, to teach at their alma mater. “I like to share my experiences with students,” Panetta said. “Too often in the academic arena you learn how it’s supposed to work, but you really don’t learn about how it really works.”
Panetta said he also learns from the students that he teaches. “I get a lot out of it because it gives me a chance to really understand where young people are coming from—what their thoughts are about public service and about the issues that affect the country,” he said. “And it gives me the ability to stay in touch with a generation that I think ultimately is very important to the future of our democracy.”
Panetta says it was particularly fun to teach during the 2004 election year. “I tried to get them to really look at the election while it was taking place,” he explains. “I would take polls of the students to see who they thought was going to win or lose. There was an interest in what was going on. I can sense in these more recent classes that there’s greater interest in getting involved.”
A generational issue
Panetta and his wife, Sylvia, devote much of their time to running the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterey. SCU students are eligible for the Institute’s Congressional internship program, which is also open to students from the California State University system and Dominican University, from which Sylvia Panetta graduated.
“Twenty-four students come to the Panetta Institute for two weeks of training, and then they are sent to Washington for three months of up-close lessons on the ways of Washington,” Panetta said. “We’ve had a number of students who have stayed in Washington to work. The purpose was to get them involved, and they are getting involved.”
Apathy among younger generations was one of their motivating factors for establishing the institute. “We were very concerned that young people were turned off about what was happening in politics,” he said. “Our generation was inspired to get involved. Part of it was my immigrant parents who said it was important to give something back to the country; part of it was having served two years in the Army; and part of it was a young president—Kennedy—who said it was important to give something back to the country. Our generation really responded to that and I think we made a difference in a number of areas.”
Partisanship and the large role that money plays in politics have soured many young people on the once noble calling of public service, causing them to feel disenfranchised, Panetta says.
A survey of college students commissioned by the Panetta Institute showed that nearly three out of four say they would never choose a career in public service, and 80 percent said politics is not relevant in their lives.
“The encouraging news is that they are interested in volunteering at the local level,” Panetta said, though “there’s a disconnect between what they can do at the local level and what they see as relevant in Washington or Sacramento.”
“They don’t like the partisanship or the news shows that are face-offs between politicians with the yelling and screaming that goes on,” he adds. “They just don’t see that as very productive. They also don’t see the parties working together to really govern the country—it’s more about winning than about governing. That’s a legitimate concern, but I try to convince them that they can make a difference and can produce the kind of change that they care about. I’ve seen it happen in my own career. The best moments in my life were when I was able to work with members of the other party to get things done.”
Panetta says today’s college students can benefit from their access to information, particularly the wealth that is available online. “They really do know a lot of what’s going on both in this country and in the world,” he said. “I really think deep down they have the same sense of values that my generation had. They’re interested in issues involving the environment and equal rights, equal justice. But I think what’s happened is the leaders of this country have not reached out to this new generation to get them involved. Part of that is political, because they are an unknown and politicians don’t like unknown votes. I tried to convince John Kerry that he ought to do that, and he really didn’t do that as much as he should have.”
With a feeling of disenfranchisement comes a reduced motivation to engage with politics, Panetta says.
“A little bit more of that happened in this past presidential election than we’ve seen before, but if you look at the voter turnout it wasn’t that much greater,” he said. “What we really need are role models to say to young people: ‘You really do have a role to play in our society.’”
According to Panetta, one way to engage today’s youth would be to establish a national service system in which they commit two years to their country, either through education, conservation, or the military.
“I think if we did that, there would be a tremendous response,” he said. “I sense that there is a real activism that is just waiting for the right moment.”
Panetta credits Santa Clara’s Jesuit philosophy for imbuing in him “the set of principles and values that I needed as I went through life, particularly in politics. There are a lot of temptations in the political business, and you have to be able to draw lines if you’re going to be able to protect your integrity. I think that the education I received at Santa Clara gave me both a good sense of where those lines need to be drawn, and perhaps more importantly, the courage I needed to make those decisions.”
Between serving on commissions and boards and being called upon by the media for expert analysis, Panetta stays very active. Still, he won’t rule out a return to Washington if the right opportunity arises.
“I spent 30 years in public life, and that stays in your blood,” he said. “The one thing I learned is to deal with politics on a day-to-day basis. I always felt that you ought to do the best in what you’re doing today. If other opportunities come along you can always make the decision then whether you want to be involved or not. If an opportunity comes along in politics that I think is a challenge for me that I’d like to take on, then I’ll do it. But I can’t say right now that there’s something out there for me.”
—Adam Breen is former editor of Santa Clara Magazine.