He is the man sitting in the next pew at a local church, or picking up groceries in the Carmel Valley area. He is a grandfather of six, and looks like a guy who’d be your neighbor. Leon Panetta is also a national hero whose legacy will be read about in history books for bringing down the most hated terrorist America has faced in modern times.
During his tenure as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, now Defense Secretary Panetta, helmed the forces that captured and killed Osama Bin Laden. He credits the success to teamwork, not experienced before, between two agencies.
“It is one of the proudest achievements I’ve had in 40 years,” Panetta told Carmel Magazine in an exclusive interview. “What made me so proud was the way the intelligence teams and the military teams worked together to accomplish something very special. When it all comes together, as it did that night, it will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Long-time friends, such as Clint Eastwood, say Panetta would never take the credit or the glory for Bin Laden’s demise. Eastwood admires Panetta’s humility.
“I think Leon operates under the radar,” Eastwood says. “People don’t know too much about him. There’s the highlight of the recent raid and capture of Bin Laden, but Leon is a guy who tries to avoid the headl ines and the limelight. He just goes ahead and does his job, and has never gone out and begged for publicity, like many politicians do.”
Local business legend Ted Balestreri says Panetta is steered by a great moral compass.
“Leon has a lot of self confidence,” Balestreri says. “He is comfortable in his own skin. He has character and courage—the two most important parts of life. And, he’s a religious guy. Leon still knows who he is: that he is driven by something bigger than all of us. He keeps a balance in life. He walks into a restaurant and he makes everyone feel comfortable. He laughs; he has a sense of humor.”
Secretary Panetta has had to use that sense of humor to stay grounded in his storied career in public service. He has held more prestigious jobs in our national government than anyone else that comes to the collective mind. He’s been hand picked for cabinet posts by two presidents, and effortlessly worked both sides of the political aisle, all while keeping his roots and heart planted here on the Monterey Peninsula.
Born in Monterey in 1938 to Italian immigrant parents, Leon Panetta went to local schools, getting involved in student government while at Monterey High. In the 1960s, he was a standout scholar at UC Santa Clara, graduating magna cum laude. Next came a law degree followed by two years in the Army. By then he was married to his wife Sylvia, the absolute other half of the dynamic Panetta duo. (One is rarely mentioned without the other.)
After switching political affiliations in the early- 1970s, from Republican to Democrat, he served Monterey and surrounding counties as a nine-term US Congressman from 1977 until 1993. As a congressman, Panetta was the type of leader who remembered constituents’ names, wecomed their comments, and looked them in the eye as he answered questions, even if it wasn’t what folks wanted to hear.
“I was raised that way,” he says. “It has always been a basic principle I’ve had throughout my career. Be straight with people. That’s the most effective way to deal with people. They may not always agree with you, but they will respect you for saying what you believe.”
Balestreri, who has been close with Panetta for 50 years, says his friend has always been a ‘no-nonsense’ guy. “He doesn’t try to measure every one of his words,” Balestreri explains. “He says it the way it is, and doesn’t change what he is saying for the other person’s personality.”
Jim Panetta, one of Panetta’s three grown sons, and a deputy district attorney in Monterey County, agrees.
“His candor is one of the qualities I admire most,” he says. “It’s his work ethic. It’s his common sense. When it comes to candor, he tells it like it is. He’s not gonna color it. It is how it is. He’s able to use his common sense in all situations. In a speech at a college graduation once he said, ‘If you got straight As in law school, you ain’t working for me. I want you working for me if you have common sense.'”
Jim says he and his brothers were led by example, not by force.
“My parents provided us with the foundation of a good work ethic and common sense,” he recalls. “There was no direction involved. They said, ‘We’ll give you the foundation, then you do what you want.’ They wanted us to go to college of course, then grad school, but the important thing to my dad was knowing how to work hard. Number one, he taught us if you work hard, then from there it’s up to you and you can go where you want to go.”
Leon Panetta’s own journey included interrupting his ninth congressional term to become President Clinton’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. The ascent continued as he was appointed Clinton’s Chief of Staff, a position he kept until 1997. Panetta left the presidential cabinet to focus on one of his crown jewels, The Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University Monterey Bay, which stimulates young people’s dreams and desires to go into politics and public service.
But his dream of working from “home” was cut short by an incredible appointment by President Barack Obama. Panetta, with no formal intelligence background, was made director of the CIA in 2009.
The job was extremely difficult in many ways. Life and death decisions were made daily. Not a night went by uninterrupted by an urgent phone call. Despite the dire seriousness of Panetta’s jobs, he is also known for bringing ease to situations.
“He is the most fun guy to be around. He is a lot of laughs. He enjoys life,” says Clint Eastwood who, along with Balestreri, has played a round or two of golf with Panetta when he is home. “When we’d tease each other during golf, I’d say, ‘How the hell you gonna find Bin Laden when you can’t find your golf ball?'” Balestreri jokes. “The only hope I ever have of getting money back out of Washington is occasionally playing golf with Leon. But, the last time we played, Leon shot an 86. He’s America’s biggest hero, but he must be playing a lot of golf, or at least practicing in his sleep.”
The friendly competition runs deep. And for Balestreri, it’s costing him a bottle of 1870 Chateau Lafite wine, worth more than $10,000. “It was New Year’s Eve, 2011,” Balestreri recalls. “We went around the table during dinner and everyone gave their resolutions. I picked up the bottle of Lafite and said, ‘We are NOT serving this wine. When you catch Bin Laden, we’ll serve it.’ Leon jumps up and says, ‘You’re on!’ Exactly four months later, I answer my phone and it’s Sylvia. She says, ‘Ted, you better get the wine opener ready. Go home, turn on the television and you’ll see why you have to open the wine.'” Before it’s uncorked, Panetta says he is ready to pour his ideas into the Department of Defense, a job with massive responsibilities.
“I moved from the CIA to the Department of Defense without a break,” he says. “I had to roll up my sleeves and dive right into this. I liken it to working at the corner hardware store and then getting a new job at Home Depot. I now have three million people in my department, two million of them in uniform. We are at a crossroads with our national defense. It’s a challenge of dealing with the budget and with limited resources. I bring knowledge of budgetary issues to the job, but also a sense that you don’t need to make a choice between being fiscally conservative and having the best national security. My goal is to help create a national defense system that will take us safely into the future. To look at threats, to make sure we have a system that is agile and effective at responding to those threats.”
Eastwood says it’s a perfect appointment. “America is lucky to have a guy like Leon Panetta on our watch right now. He is a great choice, probably the best staff choice President Obama has made so far.”
It’s a post that residents of the Carmel area are so very proud of. But, still, according to son Jim, there’s something even more important, even better, waiting around the corner. “It will be a promotion once my dad comes home,” he explains. “He loves a life of public service. But, when he is finished, it’s getting back here that will be his promotion. He loves being home in Carmel Valley, on the tractor, with the people he grew up with and his family.”