Carmel has been home to several award-winning actors and actresses; many more visit. But perhaps more unusual is the fact that it’s also home to a man who’s been portrayed by an acclaimed thespian: former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was depicted by James Gandolfini in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the 2012 movie chronicling the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Sure: that’s an honor, but it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the man. From humble beginnings as the son of immigrant Italian parents, Secretary Panetta rose to the rarified heights of United States governmental power. He has no doubts about who
planted the seeds of his ambition: “I asked my father once why he had chosen to come to America,” Secretary Panetta says. “He told me that he and my mother believed they could give their children a better life in this country.”
Panetta’s parents, Carmelo and Carmelina, worked day and night at Carmelo’s Café, the restaurant they owned on Monterey’s Lower Alvarado Street. “They worked hard. I learned the values of hard work at a young age,” Panetta says. “As a result, my brother (Joseph) and I were the first in my family to go to college and then to law school.”
His accomplishments are well known: from Capitol Hill to the White House to CIA Headquarters to the Pentagon, Panetta has proven himself in positions of ever-increasing complexity and global responsibility. And he also made time to found the Panetta Institute for Public Policy with his wife Sylvia. Not bad for a kid from “Spaghetti Hill.”
Through those years, as he was rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people on the planet, Secretary Panetta never lost sight of what was most important to him: his family, his hometown and serving his fellow citizens. Despite the fact that his job was located nearly 2,500 miles from his Carmel Valley walnut ranch, he still made it home nearly every weekend. “My dad would leave either Sunday night or Monday morning and come back Thursday night or Friday morning,” recalls the Panetta’s youngest son Jimmy. “He didn’t live in D.C. He lived here.” Indeed, to this day he wears a watch given to him by his wife Sylviaas an engagement gift. No matter where he is in the world, to keep him grounded it’s always set to California time.
This man takes the word “service” very seriously. “When you’re in these kinds of jobs, people focus on the big things you accomplish,” Secretary Panetta says. “But the ability to help people who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance is a really important part of the job, be it a lost Social Security check or needing help with immigration papers. These are people who would be lost in the shuffle if someone wasn’t paying attention. Both Sylvia and I felt that was a big part of the job of being in Congress. It’s not just passing legislation to create the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It’s helping individuals.”
Recently, Secretary Panetta published a book, “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace” (2014, Penguin Press). Written with Los Angeles Times editor-at-large Jim Newton, the book pulls back the curtain on Washington machinations and offers sometimes-harsh, always fair criticisms of the Obama administration. It’s also about the extraordinary life this Monterey native son has led. “In the end, this book is really the American story,” he says. “It’s about the American Dream. The title says it all: dreams are just dreams unless you are willing to fight for them, to get things done. I’ve found these fights to be worthy. That’s the story of my life. In almost every job I’ve had, I’ve had the chance to fundamentally change people,”
Secretary Panetta muses. Now that he’s put Washington life in the rearview mirror, can a man as dynamic as this find happiness on a walnut farm in sleepy Carmel Valley? “I’m not one to sit in a rocking chair. I’m enjoying being home and working with Sylvia at the Panetta Institute. I’m also doing a lot of speaking both here and abroad and consulting in Washington and New York while serving on several boards. It’s a full life.”
A full life indeed.