Muskie Award 2012 Preview: 5 Defining Moments in Leon Panetta's Career
Jun 20, 2012Posted by Scott Bates
I've been thinking a lot about the arc of Leon Panetta's career in the days before the Center for National Policy honors him with the 2012 Edmund S. Muskie Distinguished Public Service Award. Among the Secretary's many contributions and achievements, there are five that stand out as exemplifying the leadership qualities and dedication to service that we will recognize on Thursday.
1. Standing up for Civil Rights
Many of Secretary Panetta's current admirers do not realize the extent of his involvement in the civil rights struggle in the early 1970s. Working as a legislative assistant Panetta played a role in the creation of landmark civil rights legislation and then became responsible for protecting these liberties as director for the U.S. Office for Civil Rights. However, Panetta often clashed with the administration of President Richard Nixon over the pace and effectiveness of the implementation of these laws, and ultimately resigned his position. This early demonstration of Panetta's moral compass set the high standards by which he would be judged—and judge himself—throughout his entire career.
2. Establishing the Monterey Bay Maritime Sanctuary
As member of Congress representing his home state of California, Panetta ushered through legislation to protect and preserve the Monterey Bay and coastline. With approximately 3 million people living within 50 miles of what would become the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Panetta sought to safeguard a precious resource that both supports livelihoods and protects a fragile ecosystem. An environmental steward who was ahead of his time, Panetta's aspirations transcended Capitol Hill's day-to-day in order to create something lasting not only for this generation, but for many generations to come.
3. Balancing the Federal Budget
At a moment when compromise is often equated with surrender, the example set by Leon Panetta as a strong and principled conciliator has never been more relevant. As director of the Office of Management and Budget, he developed the package that balanced the federal budget for the first time in nearly three decades. This 1998 achievement was monumental at the time, and appears all the more impressive in retrospect. Working to bridge the divide between a Democratic executive and a Republican legislature, Panetta rose above partisan politics and achieved a rare feat that served the greater good and—unfortunately—has not been repeated. At last count, Panetta's was the last balanced budget in 42 years.
4. Ending Osama Bin Laden's Reign of Terror
After nearly a decade of hunting the world's most wanted terrorist without a serious lead, the CIA's reputation was at risk. As CIA director, Panetta revitalized the agency's image by relentlessly pursuing leads and evidence on the al-Qaeda leader's whereabouts. Panetta's presence in the iconic photographs of the White House situation room during those final, tense moments belies his central role in planning the mission that delivered justice for the victims of the September 11th attacks.
5. Repealing DADT
At the helm of the Defense Department, Panetta wasted no time in tackling some of the military's most complex challenges. The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), the policy that forbade gay and lesbian members of the armed services from disclosing their sexuality, loomed especially large. In Panetta's eyes, the opportunity to close this chapter of American history would bring his career full circle. As a young man, Panetta broke through barriers that denied American citizens their civil rights. Now, as one of the nation's preeminent leaders, Panetta saw the continuation of those efforts in rescinding DADT, which removed one of the last barriers preventing all Americans from serving the nation.
Accomplishments in the shadowy worlds of intelligence and national defense often remain unknown. In time we will surely learn of further contributions that Leon Panetta has made on issues like containing Iran, crafting a holistic cyber-security policy, stabilizing fragile states like Yemen, or preserving a defense budget that marries fiscal responsibility to the prerogatives of our national security. These may not surface for 5, 10, or 15 years, but rest assured, behind-the-scenes Leon Panetta is ensuring the U.S.—and the world—is a safe place. It is therefore safe to say that the final chapter on Leon Panetta's legacy has not yet been written.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for National Policy.
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