Leon Panetta: Bipartisan in Spirit but a Liberal at Heart

As the long-expected news broke yesterday that CIA Director Leon Panetta would be named secretary of defense, I recalled the last time I spoke to the former Northern California congressman and top official of the Clinton administration.  It was on September 11, 2001.
On that history-changing day now known as 9/11, Panetta—then on a private-sector sabbatical between Democratic administrations—was in the same building in the process of evacuation as the HUMAN EVENTS offices.  Panetta’s cell phone was not working and he asked me whether he could use one in our office.  Of course, I replied.  When his call was over, Panetta and I discussed a recently published book on his old boss, New York’s liberal Republican former Mayor John Lindsay (whom Panetta worked for as executive assistant from 1970 to ’71).
People who know Panetta and me are not surprised when I tell them that we were discussing a politician of years gone by on that day of infamy.  That’s expected when two political junkies get together, regardless of the circumstances.  
What is surprising to people is learning that Panetta once worked for a Republican—albeit, a liberal one.  He actually worked for several Republicans and was, in fact, a Republican himself before switching to Democrat and winning his first race for Congress back in 1976.  
A former legislative assistant to Sen. Thomas Kuchel (R.-Calif.), the young Panetta joined the Nixon administration in 1969 and headed up the Office of Civil Rights in the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare (under fellow California GOPer Robert Finch).  A year later, Panetta complained publicly about what he felt was the administration’s too-slow policy on school desegregration.  The complaint essentially led to Panetta’s firing from his job, but also made him a liberal cause célèbre.  
Panetta’s switch from Republican to Democrat, like that of his next boss Lindsay, spawned dislike from the party he left and distrust within the party he joined.  But it was not enough to stop him from a contested Democratic primary for Congress in 1976 and unseating veteran Republican Rep. Burt Talcott in the fall of that year.
In his early years in Congress, Panetta’s contacts with former Republicans and good nature gave him a reputation for bipartisanship.  That ended abruptly in 1985 when the Californian was tapped to be chairman of a bipartisan taks force conducting a recount of the much-disputed House race in Indiana’s 8th District the year before.
Republican Rick McIntyre held a 34-vote lead out of more than 233,000 cast, and held a certificate of election from the state.  But the recount conducted by the Panetta task force somehow came up with a four-vote lead for Democrat Frank McCloskey, whereupon the Democratic-controlled House voted on party lines to seat McCloskey, and angry Republicans stormed out of the House shaking their fists and shouting “McIntyre won.”

“Panetta was attacked on the [House] floor,” notes The Almanac of American Politics, “and his bipartisan reputation was tarnished.”  More than a quarter century later, this reporter still recalls the scene at pubs on the House side of Capitol Hill after the vote, with Republican lawmakers talking about nothing other than “the great Indiana House robbery” and their staffers wearing buttons proclaiming, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Three years before the fractious confirmation battle over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court and seven years before the bitter fight over Clarence Thomas’ nomination, the Indiana-8 drama in which then-Rep. Panetta was a major player started the highly incendiary partisanship in Congress that continues to this day.

As Bill Clinton’s budget director and later chief of staff, and most recently as Barack Obama’s CIA director, Panetta has done much to recover his bipartisan shine.  I don’t know anyone in Washington who dislikes him personally, and at 72, the man who will likely head the Pentagon soon is considered almost above party politics.

But in acknowledging that, it is nonetheless worth acknowledging Leon Panetta’s past history of liberalism and partisanship.  In so doing, any disappointments that come from Panetta in his latest high office won’t be all that surprising.