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Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace by [Leon Panetta, Jim Newton]

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Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace Kindle Edition

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Editorial Reviews


The Washington Post:
Worthy Fights is Panetta’s addition to the Cabinet bookshelf, and it’s very readable, with the frank descriptions of personalities and events that distinguish this genre at its best.” --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.




I said good-bye to a fallen CIA colleague, a personable, driven young woman named Elizabeth Hanson, on a warm May morning in Washington in 2010. She was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, in the shade of a stately line of willow oaks, amid thousands of American heroes and in the company of hundreds of friends, family, and coworkers from the Central Intelligence Agency. I was at the time the director of the CIA. Elizabeth Hanson had worked for me.

It was a graveside service, modest and brief; she was buried in Area 60, beside many veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, just over a small rise from the Pentagon. Hanson and six other members of our agency were killed on December 30, 2009, at a remote CIA base in the Khost province of eastern Afghanistan. Liz Hanson and her colleagues were there that day to meet a potential agent, a jihadist who said he wanted to work for the CIA and steer us to the leadership of Al Qaeda. Instead, when he arrived at the meeting he detonated a diabolically powerful suicide vest, killing seven of our best and injuring a dozen more. That explosion was a signal tragedy for the CIA—one of the largest losses of life in the agency’s history.

The attack shook the CIA, and I had spent much of that winter and spring consoling our employees and traveling around America to share the grief of the families of those men and women. Hanson’s funeral was the last of seven such services I had attended. They included small private services and a large Catholic mass. Some were packed with dignitaries, others limited to friends and family. I met with mourners in Fredericksburg, Maryland; Virginia Beach; Clinton, Massachusetts; Akron, Ohio; and central Illinois. And this was my third trip to Arlington. After the funeral mass in Clinton, boys and girls stood in the snow outside the church, some quietly waving flags or signs that read, THANKS FOR KEEPING US SAFE. In Akron, the widow of one of our fallen, Scott Roberson, was carrying his child, a girl. One eulogist imagined the day when their daughter would come to visit the CIA and touch the star etched into the marble of our Memorial Wall, marking her father’s sacrifice, her heart full of pride for a man she never had the luck to know.

Two realizations connected all of those ceremonies: Nothing could return those young men and women to their families, and I could only offer them a promise. America would do everything in its power to bring those behind the murders to justice. They hit us; America would hit back.

By 2010, nearly a decade after the events of September 11, 2001, the sustained response by America and its allies had significantly degraded Al Qaeda, but it remained a fighting force, still under the spell of Osama bin Laden and directed by him and his close lieutenants. Now, with the burial of Elizabeth Hanson still fresh in my mind, American analysts reported that they had found one of those deputies—in fact, one of those directly responsible for the attack at Khost. He was down for the night, deep in a terrorist compound.

That was a significant piece of news. This terrorist was a shrewd and methodical operative who had risen within Al Qaeda in recent years while repeatedly eluding our attempts to take him off the battlefield. Khost was only the latest of his crimes. So finding him represented a victory in and of itself.

There was, however, a catch: He was not alone. Al Qaeda leaders knew that American policy was to avoid civilian casualties wherever possible, and they had adapted their habits to that realization. By 2010, the organization’s top terrorists would often stay close to family members or other noncombatants, theorizing that those shields would dissuade the United States from conducting operations against them. Some leaders who had long traveled by themselves now brought along children, exploiting our humanity while debasing their own. Now with our target in the house half a world away were a wife and at least two children. The reports suggested that others might be in the house as well. Any operation against him might kill others too.

That was not a prospect I took lightly. I was raised Catholic. I was an altar boy. Since my earliest years, I’ve attended mass on Sundays and holy days. I carry a rosary and believe that life is sacred. Moreover, I’m a husband and the father of three sons. But I also deeply believe in duty to country. I have spent the majority of my life in the service of the United States—I was in the army, I was a Senate aide and later director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, aide to the mayor of New York City, congressman for the Central Coast of California, Office of Management and Budget director, and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. I’ve had the honor of being elected by the people of my hometown and endured the stress of being fired by President Nixon. In 2010, at the helm of the CIA, this time placed in a position of responsibility by President Obama, I was once again mindful of my duty. In each of those jobs, I’ve tried to focus on the obligations that they entail. I’ve fought to desegregate schools, to protect the California coastline, to balance the federal budget. I’ve done so out of a sense of duty, and also of obligation, of repaying a debt that my family owes this nation.

That’s because this nation made my family’s dreams possible. I’m the son of Italian immigrants who came to this country to give their children a better life. That was their dream of country and family, and I am acutely conscious of fulfilling that dream, of recognizing the opportunities that the United States offered. This country has given me much, and I take seriously my obligations to serve and protect it.

So in this situation the moral dilemma was this: If one of those responsible for Elizabeth Hanson’s murder was allowed to escape, he might kill others, including more Americans. But to eliminate the threat on that night might require taking the lives of innocents. In such a situation, how does one balance duty to country and respect for life?

From a small room at the National Security Agency, which I happened to be visiting, I spoke to White House officials to review the matter. They sounded a note of caution. Avoiding collateral damage had been a hallmark of President Obama’s approach to these operations. All of us knew that any operation that killed civilians was to be authorized only under extraordinary circumstances. Did these qualify? We all understood that if our target was spared in order to protect his family, he would strike at us again, and without the compunctions that we had regarding the deaths of civilians.

After a few searching moments, I made up my own mind. The professionals working on this mission needed to keep looking for a way to isolate him, to minimize any risk to anyone else. But all of us working on national security matters for the United States had an overriding obligation: He could not be allowed to get away.

Hours later, he was dead. A grave threat to America had been eliminated. His wife, with whom this country had no quarrel, died in the same operation.

The challenges of protecting this nation, safeguarding its economy, providing opportunity to its citizens, and preserving its treasures have been mainstays of my life. Those challenges are rarely easy, and they sometimes demand deep searching of one’s soul, the fingering of a rosary, the whispered Hail Mary. In considering those questions, I have been blessed with gifted mentors and, especially, loving parents whose devotion to the United States was forged in their appreciation for the opportunities it offered. It is with my parents that my story begins.




“A Better Life”

My father arrived in the United States in the fashion of so many who came before and so many who would follow: He came in search of opportunity, and found it after passing through the sober and hopeful halls of Ellis Island. He was one of eighteen hundred third-class passengers aboard the Providence, which landed on October 25, 1921. He declared his profession as “peasant” and his total assets as twenty-five dollars. He was en route to join his older brother Bruno, then in Sheridan, Wyoming. My father was the youngest of thirteen siblings. His name was Carmelo Panetta, and he was twenty-three years old.

He first left home during World War I, when he was drafted into the Italian army. He was wounded in 1918 during the Battle of the Piave River, an important Italian victory. He rarely talked about that experience, for my father was a quiet man, resolute and hardworking, devoted to values that some might find quaint: family, duty, faith. He did not lecture on those ideas, but he lived them. He also was a very good cook.

After working briefly in New York and Wyoming, he joined the sibling to whom he was closest, his rambunctious brother Tony, in California, and found a job as a cook. Like so many immigrants before and since, he took jobs wherever he could. He worked in Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles, and Marin County, north of San Francisco, making a decent living but finding himself lonely in his adopted country. He was past his thirtieth birthday, and his vision of himself as a husband and father was missing a few pieces. Though my father had been in the United States for nearly a decade by then, his search for a bride turned him toward home. He knew where to look for a nice Italian girl. In 1932, he sailed for Italy.

He found my mother in church. Family lore is a little murky on the details but clear on the basics: Having returned to Calabria, at the toe of the boot of Italy, my father ventured down the mountains from his native Gerace to the slightly more prosperous coastal village of Siderno. There, he stood at the back of a church one Sunday and spotted a tall, dark-haired, attractive young woman. He made inquiries and discovered that the lovely eighteen-year-old Carmelina who had caught his eye was the daughter of Giuseppe Prochilo, a local member of the merchant marine. Inquiries were made and at least one obstacle was overcome: My Nona initially objected to the union, preferring instead that my father be betrothed to Carmelina’s older sister, who wasn’t getting any younger. Nona also objected to my father’s plans to bring his new bride to America and thus away from her family. But my father persisted. He wanted the girl he had seen in church. Eventually, and with the help of my Nono, he prevailed. Perseverance was one of his strongest traits.

Now wed, Carmelo returned to the United States with his young bride and retraced his steps. They arrived in New York, where Carmelo had bought a small piece of property, but elected to move on, heading again for Wyoming and his brother Bruno. Bruno was a hard worker and had a big family; his three sons proudly served in World War II and later ran a successful food wholesale business. It was there, in Sheridan in 1933, that my mother gave birth to my brother, Joe. But both the harsh winters and the tough economic times were hard on my parents. They did not stay long. Seeking better weather and opportunity, they pushed forward to California, where they rejoined Tony. This time the young couple with their infant son eventually landed in Monterey.

It’s easy to see what appealed to them. Monterey in those days—and even today—has an Italian feel. It’s nestled in a beautiful bay, and the deep water of the Pacific Coast offered a bountiful fishing ground. Much of the city was devoted to fishing—many men fished and many women worked in the processing factories made famous by John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which was published just a few years after the Panetta family made Monterey our home. Steinbeck’s great novel captured the spirit of Monterey—raucous, tender, a little threadbare, but very tightly knit. In Steinbeck’s words, Monterey was “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”

It was there that I was born in 1938. We lived in an apartment building on Van Buren Street, in a largely Italian-American community, naturally known as “Spaghetti Hill.” Many of our neighbors were fishermen, and nets were hung through the alleys and backyards in the afternoons to dry. I can remember playing among them and once getting so trapped in the webbing that my brother had to come and untangle me.

My father had been working at a restaurant called Biff’s up until about the time I was born. It was then that he and a fellow Calabrese, Dominic Luscri, decided to go into business together, with Dominic opening a bar and my father launching a restaurant of his own. The two establishments abutted each other, and a swinging door between them allowed patrons to take their drinks from Dominic’s place to my father’s. The new restaurant was located at the intersection of Alvarado and Del Monte in the heart of old downtown Monterey. It was called Carmelo’s Café, and it became the center of our lives.

Modeled on a restaurant called New Joe’s in San Francisco, the café served casual Italian fare, along with steaks and chops, hamburgers and salads. Some guests sat at the counter, others in booths. The tabletops were plain wood, no tablecloths. Carmelo’s Café was open six days a week, closed on Tuesdays. Both my parents worked there, my dad as the chef, my mother anchoring the cash register. Joe and I also helped out sometimes, washing dishes, peeling potatoes, or doing other chores. The café was part of a lively downtown, surrounded by bars and pool halls. Customers included the colorful mix of men and women who made up Monterey in those days: fishermen, shop owners, businesspeople, and servicemen from nearby Fort Ord, which was a huge training post at the time. Thousands of young men from across the nation came to the post to train for the battlefields of World War II, so Monterey was their last stop before war, a last chance for a drink or a plate of spaghetti.

There was a button beneath the cash register that my mother used to summon the military police from the base when soldiers got too frisky with her, which was fairly often. One particularly moony soldier begged her to “leave that Greek,” a mistaken reference to my father, “and run away with me.” My mother hit the button.

Not long after I was born, my mother’s father, my Nono, Giuseppe, came to pay us a visit. He was used to traveling—his time in the merchant marine had taken him around the world several times in the old sailing and steam ships—but he never could persuade my grandmother to travel far from home. As a result, he arrived by himself, thinking it would be for a brief visit, a chance to meet his youngest grandson, me.

Instead, war broke out in Europe. Nono, as I always called him, was an alien and could not return. He was stuck with us. It was my good fortune.

Through my early childhood, Nono and I were together almost constantly. He was a big, garrulous man, with hands like catchers’ mitts, a mop of thick white hair, and a lyrical Italian accent. He loved life, good food, and a glass of wine that he would pour from a gallon jug of Gallo that rested on the floor near his chair. He’d carry me around on his shoulders, and take me down to the local Italian market, Genovese’s, or the wharf. He fished a bit, and the fishermen would always be happy to see him. They gathered there or in a little plaza at the end of Alvarado Street, where they smoked Toscanellis and talked about the war and Mussolini and Hitler as I strained to hear and understand. My Nono, after all, was only in the United States by chance, and he warned that the war might not be as easy as some Americans thought. “Watch out,” he once told my father. “Mussolini and Hitler could win.” My father didn’t buy it: “Papa, that’s not going to happen.”

Although we spoke both English and Italian at home, Nono knew only bits and pieces of English. My father told the story of one of his dishwashers who had to have a serious operation. When he returned from his stay in the hospital, Nono asked him where he had been. Jack, the dishwasher, said he’d been hospitalized with a very serious illness.

“Thatsa good, Jack . . . Thatsa good,” my Nono said.

My father quickly explained to a shaken Jack that it was Nono’s way of hoping all went well.

For me to take full advantage of my grandfather’s generosity, it was critical for me to learn Italian. He spoiled me, as grandparents do, and I sat on his shoulders calling out things I wanted from the market. One day I begged for a cantaloupe, and he heard that as “lupe.” Arriving at the market, Nono was perplexed but determined to give me what I wanted. In Italian, he asked the owners, “Ma dove trovo un lupe?”—“But where am I going to find a wolf?” People in Monterey still tell that story.

It was an Italian market, of course, and the grandson of the owners was Joe Genovese. Joe and I were boys together. We played almost every day. He would come around the apartment complex on Van Buren and stand outside yelling “Leee-on, Leee-on, come out and play.” We roamed the neighborhood together, fashioning slingshots and rubber-band guns. We struggled to keep up with my brother and his friends, who played at another level, building tree forts and playing with axes. One of those axes cost my brother half of his right thumb—neighbors still talk about the screams of my mother when Joe came running home, half his thumb dangling from his hand.

On weekends, Joe Genovese and I would walk to the Monterey Theater, where we’d see the serials for twenty-five cents. They played the Phantom, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Batman, Superman—all our favorites. After the movies, we’d go by the restaurant and have a hamburger before heading home. Those were the days when two kids, six years old, could walk all around Monterey by themselves; families looked out for one another.

Joe and I loved to play make-believe, but I made him play by my rules: I always got to play the lead, and he was forced to be my sidekick. We tied my mother’s dishrags at the corners and made them into capes. Properly outfitted, we then challenged and vanquished enemies of every stripe—not exactly a precursor of my years at the CIA or the Defense Department, but perhaps a glimmer.

I attended Catholic schools as a young boy, and worked to be a good student. I walked to school—about ten blocks through downtown Monterey—and got there early. Too early for the Franciscan nuns, who were bothered by my loitering around campus before school opened. They made me write “I will not get to school early” a thousand times on the blackboard. That, plus the occasional whack of a ruler across my hands, taught me a lot about discipline. Other than the occasional mark-down for “deportment,” I generally received good grades—history and English were my strongest subjects; math was fine up until I reached Algebra 2, at which point I hit the wall and began to say Hail Marys. And my Catholic education extended beyond the classroom. Although my parents worked hard and did not make every mass, they were Catholic in their souls, and there was no question but that I would be raised Catholic. I attended mass often during the week and every Sunday. I was an altar boy and received First Communion and the other sacraments in the church as well. And my make-believe life bled into my religious observance. There was a vacant shed not far from our house, and I would occasionally sneak inside and deliver stirring sermons to the empty rooms. To this day, I carry a rosary and attend mass on Sunday. And I steady myself with Hail Marys, especially during these most tense recent phases of my life, when it was my responsibility to order young people into harm’s way.

My parents were a loving and supportive presence throughout my childhood. They came to America because they believed they could give their children a better life. And they did, but they also worked hard to make that happen. The restaurant was often open until 2 a.m. and then again for breakfast, so they barely had time for a nap before they needed to return to work. Even Tuesdays, when the restaurant was closed, were filled with restocking, paying bills, buying and replacing supplies. That made me all the happier to have my Nono, as he stood in for my hardworking mother and father.

During the early years of the war in Europe, events on that continent were of intense interest but still seemed remote. That changed after Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, many Americans, especially on the West Coast, feared invasion, and that fear was stoked by the unfounded suspicion that the December 7, 1941, attack had been aided by Japanese spies. Those inside the United States with ties to the Axis powers came under grave and increasingly shrill suspicion. It was ludicrous to think that my grandfather posed any such threat—he was a retired sailor with no loyalties to Mussolini, and there was not so much as an allegation against him—but he was among those Italians living in America who were forcibly removed from their homes, in his case because he was living in the coastal zone.

In early 1942, some ten thousand Italians living on the West Coast were targeted for removal because they lived in areas that were designated as prohibited.1 The order did not apply to American citizens and was in many cases waived even for first-generation immigrants, especially those with American children. Presumably, that is why my parents were spared. My grandfather, by contrast, had not immigrated to the United States but rather was an Italian citizen in this country merely for a vacation. That was enough to render him a threat, and, to my shock and dismay, he was ordered to leave Monterey.

My parents helped him find an apartment in San Jose in a boardinghouse run by an Italian family. When it came time to leave, we drove Nono to San Jose. That car ride was one I will never forget. Through my tears, I struggled to understand why my Nono was being forced to move away. I’m sure it was painful for my parents to say good-bye to my grandfather, but they did not let on to me, and they certainly did not allow themselves to become embittered against the United States. “To be free,” my father used to say, “we must also be secure.” Did he apply that sentiment to the removal of my Nono? Neither my mother nor my father said a word; there were only tears.

My grandfather’s case was one of thousands involving relocation or internment of Italians and Italian Americans during the war, a shameful example of segregating out a portion of the public solely on the basis of background. As a civil rights issue, it paled next to the treatment of the Japanese and Japanese Americans, 110,000 of whom were interned for most of the war; nearly two-thirds of those were American citizens, forced to spend years behind barbed wire in camps throughout the West, extending as far east as Arkansas. Though most American-born Italian Americans, myself included, escaped that fate, the entire episode stands as a bracing reminder that even those most committed to civil liberties can lose sight of their responsibilities when confronted by a threat to security. It was a lesson I would later have the opportunity to reflect upon.

In the meantime, the war was in one sense good for my family. Fort Ord kept growing as a major hub of training activity for American soldiers bound for the war. Monterey was jumping with off-duty soldiers and sailors—and the restaurant was too. Business boomed through those years, and my father proved to be a street-smart investor. He bought a couple of rental properties and supplemented his income from the café with rent payments. Then, just as the war ended, he sold the restaurant at the height of the market, and was done with his days behind the counter.

He and my mother took the money from the sale of the café and bought twelve acres in the Carmel Valley. They planted walnut trees so that the land would produce some income, as well as some peach trees that would begin producing while the walnuts matured. In 1946, they began work on a house, and by 1948 it was complete. We moved from Monterey to the valley. I would spend the rest of my youth in that home. Indeed, I have spent much of my life there. My sons grew up in that house, and my wife, Sylvia, and I live there today.

The orchard required plenty of work. I helped with irrigating the trees three times a year, picked the fruit, and often manned a fruit stand out on the road. But the property was more than a chore—it was a wondrous retreat, vast and limitless, for a boy with an imagination. I crawled over the hills, pretending to be characters from Tom Mix to Zapata. I built an imaginary city out of wooden blocks close to the house, constructing roads and dams and waterways. And though the crop never did make much money—I suspect it just about kept pace with the taxes—it connected my mother and father to the land, and grounded me in the real work of farming. Today, when I see the vegetable garden that one of my sons nurtures in his backyard, I remember my young days in Carmel Valley and happily note that my parents’ gift to me continues to yield fruit.

I enjoyed sports as a boy, particularly baseball and basketball, but I showed my greatest potential as a pianist. My parents arranged for Joe and me to take lessons. Joe soon moved on to sports and friends in high school, but I stuck with it for a while because of the encouragement of my mother and the kindness of a local piano teacher, David Alberto. He would pick me up at school, buy cookies, and off we would go to my lessons on his old Steinway in his Carmel home. I loved the music, and my skills improved. I gave some recitals and even attracted a little notice.

When I was about ten years old, I gave a performance at a home in Carmel that the local newspaper covered. “This boy,” the reviewer wrote of me, “possesses a phenomenal musical talent. He played with a depth of feeling and understanding far beyond his years.” Of my interpretive ability, this generous reviewer marked that it was “nothing short of genius.” Unfortunately, practicing the piano meant not playing sports or studying. I stuck with it for several years and even gave a formal concert at the Sunset Center in Carmel, but eventually my interests turned elsewhere. And though I still play often, I abandoned thoughts of a musical career before I finished high school. It was not just the hours of practice required for a pianist; it was the realization that I liked being with people, not performing for them.

After eight years of Catholic grammar school, the horizons of my life suddenly expanded when I enrolled at Monterey High School, my first experience with public education. After a rocky start—I came home in tears the first day, overwhelmed by the size of my classes and worried about making friends with boys and girls who already had been together for years—I got my bearings and discovered a knack for politics. I joined all kinds of clubs—Key Club, Latin Club, and the like—and I ran for student council and was elected, first as student body vice president and later as president. One of my projects was to create a student union—a place for students to play cards or listen to records. I proposed the idea, and the administration signed off on it. I then solicited contributions of used furniture, including a big unit of a record player that sat in the corner, and a couple Ping-Pong tables. It was an instant hit. My commitment to constituent services was born.

As a young person, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to a career. Piano had come and gone, and my father periodically floated the idea that he thought being a dentist would be smart—good money, regular hours, and Wednesdays off seemed ideal to him. But the thought of spending my life looking in other people’s mouths didn’t do much for me. Joe, meanwhile, headed off to Santa Clara University—the first member of our family ever to go to college—determined to head from there to law school. I had tailed him for years, following him and his friends through the streets of Monterey. This too seemed like a path worth following. My parents approved, and I matriculated in the fall of 1956. My father paid my tuition in regular cash installments, and I chipped in by extending my ROTC service at Santa Clara—ROTC was required for all students the first two years in those days—for two more years and getting my army commission.

ROTC was my first real service to my country, and I enjoyed it, both for the sense that I was contributing to my education and because I liked the specifics of my experience—the military history, the schooling in weaponry and tactics. When I graduated from Santa Clara, I received my bachelor of science degree at the podium, then all of us who had completed ROTC stripped off our graduation robes to reveal our uniforms underneath. I circled back up to the podium a second time, this time to receive my commission. It was a like a scene from an old Doris Day–Gordon MacRae movie.

In retrospect, the combination of law and student government may look as if I was building toward a career in politics even then. If so, it wasn’t conscious.

I was drawn to the idea of service—my parents’ gratitude to this country for the opportunities it gave them profoundly affected me, and my ROTC training reinforced that. But I was never a particularly ideological young person, and my political role models in those days made their impressions as much through character as philosophy. I remember Eisenhower visiting Carmel during his presidency—he liked to golf at Pebble Beach—and I was captivated by his presence. I had rooted for him during the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago; I didn’t think of him in terms of political philosophy so much as I admired his style of sturdy, comforting leadership.

In California, Earl Warren was elected governor in 1942, when I was still a young boy, and went on to be twice reelected (he is the only governor in California history to win three consecutive elections), so he was the governor for my whole youth, and he too captured my interest and support. Like Eisenhower, he was a big, forceful presence, as well as a commanding and bipartisan leader. And, like Eisenhower, he was a Republican.

So when it came time for me to align with a party, I joined the GOP of Ike and Warren, and considered myself part of the socially liberal, fiscally conservative Republican Party that those two leaders helped create and nurture through the 1950s. My first presidential vote was for Richard Nixon in 1960; I supported him because of his association with Eisenhower and in the belief that he represented moderate social policies in areas such as civil rights. The party would change a great deal in later years, and I would eventually leave it, but I believe I remain faithful to those progressive ideals that once grounded Eisenhower Republicans.

College and law school were formative in many ways, but no moment was more meaningful than a mixer in the fall of 1958. I was a student body officer at Santa Clara—commissioner of social activities or some such thing—and since it was an all-men’s school, we hosted regular get-togethers with our sister Catholic schools in the Bay Area. Buses brought in the young women, and we greeted them with corsages. That day, as they disembarked, I exchanged looks with one dark-haired beauty from Dominican. We didn’t connect at first—she was surrounded by other girls, and I couldn’t get to her. But later that evening, after I considered skipping the dance, I was encouraged by my friends, particularly Butch Erbst, to see what the possibilities might be at the mixer. We walked out of the dorm, and there was a group of women passing by.

Sylvia was part of that group; our eyes met again. We struck up a conversation at dinner. We ended up spending the evening, the first of many, chatting away. Soon I met her family, and we too hit it off. Her parents, like mine, were Italian, hardworking, and dedicated to the success of their children—her dad was a partner in a garbage company that held a franchise with the city of Petaluma, just north of San Francisco.

After a long courtship, I proposed to Sylvia, and then, in the fashion expected of Italian men of my generation, I sought her father’s approval. He happily gave it. We were engaged on June 20, 1961. I gave Sylvia a ring, and she gave me a watch. It was a self-winding Movado. More than fifty years later, I still wear it. And it’s always been set to California time, so that no matter where I am in the world, I am reminded of home.

A year later, on July 14, 1962, Sylvia and I were married at her family’s parish. Our first son, Chris, was born on Mother’s Day of the following year, and our family began to take shape. For our part, Sylvia and I are still having that talk that we began in 1958.

Although I voted for Nixon in 1960, I admired Kennedy as well, and as a Catholic, my heart was with him. I attended a Kennedy rally in San Jose during the campaign, and I had the chance to shake his hand as he passed in an open car. Even that passing moment left a feeling of connection, and when he won the election I joined with the rest of the country in anticipating his presidency.

His charisma and charm, his sense of style and panache, his young wife and attractive children—all struck a hopeful chord in the country as the first American president born in the twentieth century took command. It was his inaugural message that struck me most strongly, however. His call to service—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—powerfully expressed the lessons of my father and my experiences in the army. I felt that sense of duty; Kennedy’s appeal to patriotism resonated deeply with me and many of those close to me.

The final words of that speech are often overlooked in favor of the famous “ask not” passage, but they are among the most stirring appeals to service ever uttered by an American president, and they fused country and faith in a way that spoke directly to me: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

By the middle of 1963, I had a wife, a son, and a law degree. And I owed the first of many debts to my country. I had received a military deferment while in law school, but now my time was up, and we shipped out. Our first stop was Fort Benning, Georgia, where we were greeted by a blast of humidity and an unpleasant introduction to the military’s family housing barracks. Happily, the end of basic training brought a transfer to the U.S. Army Intelligence School outside of Baltimore, where our second son, Carmelo—named after my father—was born in 1964 at Mercy Hospital.

I was next scheduled to move to Washington to work in defense intelligence, but as we were preparing to go, we received word that my mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer. I requested and received a compassionate reassignment and headed home. Soon my mother had recuperated, and I took up duties at Ford Ord, just a few miles from where I grew up, working as an intelligence officer and assigned to brief young men on their way to Vietnam even as Joan Baez and other protesters demonstrated against the war just a few miles away. Those were hard briefings, many to soldiers who didn’t want to be there and didn’t understand why they were being asked to fight. One consequence was that we had a major problem with soldiers going AWOL. We’d round them up, and then, of course, they shipped out. A lot of those kids never made it back. In 2014, I presided over a commemoration of the Vietnam War as secretary of defense and spent a few minutes perusing the wall of names at the starkly beautiful memorial in Washington. I spotted a few familiar ones, young men who gave their lives to a war that neither they nor their leaders fully understood.

But there were rewards to my posting as well. As an intelligence officer, I was responsible for operations and plans for security in the event of crisis—good training for the future. I also had the support and friendship of some great fellow officers and enlisted men and women. In particular, my commanding officer, Colonel Harry Fair, was a tough but compassionate officer who taught me about leadership and did me the honor of awarding me the Army Commendation Medal for my service.

As a lawyer, I also was asked to represent servicemen in courts-martial, and found I enjoyed the life of a defense lawyer. I defended lots of AWOL cases, but also some more serious charges—assaults and the occasional rape. I got good enough and was called on so frequently that Sylvia joked my name must be up on a stockade wall someplace. In fact, one commanding general warned me that if I kept it up, I’d find myself reassigned to Fort Irwin, a post in the California desert. Thanks to Colonel Fair, I was able to stay at Ford Ord as long as I promised to spend my remaining time as an intelligence officer. I gave up my legal work a little reluctantly—I must admit that I enjoyed the chance to challenge authority in military courts, where most defendants were more likely to be presumed guilty until proven innocent.

When I was preparing to muster out of the military in 1966, I faced the future that had been awaiting me ever since I finished law school but that had been delayed by the fulfillment of my service obligation. I was intrigued by the idea of working in Washington—Kennedy’s speech still rang in my ears—but I had no contacts there or any real insight into the place. On a lark, I tossed off a letter to Joseph Califano, then working as a lawyer in the White House (later that year he was named general counsel of the army), and already a formidable Washington insider. We were both lawyers, and he’d worked in the army too, but my appeal to him was a little more basic. I wrote him because he was Italian, and I asked if he would lend a hand to another. Amazingly, he did, calling me a few days later and offering to make some introductions around Washington.

In those days, servicemen flew on major airlines for half-price if they were in uniform, so I donned mine and headed for the capital. Califano had made appointments for me at Defense and Justice and the Office of Personnel Management, among others, and I dutifully made my way around town. But it was a chance trip to the Senate office buildings that landed me my first civilian job since college.

I was an admirer of Senator Tom Kuchel, who had been appointed to his post by Governor Warren when Richard Nixon vacated it to become Ike’s vice president. Kuchel was another of those centrist, forward-looking Republicans who dominated California at the middle of the century. Warren had moved to the Supreme Court by 1963, but Kuchel had won reelection and was still holding down that tradition in the Senate.

I didn’t know Kuchel any better than I knew Califano, but I figured there was no harm in asking, so I went to Capitol Hill, presented myself to his secretary, and asked if there were any openings. As it turned out, one of the senator’s two top aides—in those days, he had a principal aide for foreign policy and another for domestic policy—had recently left, so there was in fact a vacancy. And there I was, armed with a law degree, a native of California and in a U.S. Army uniform. Kuchel wasn’t in, but his administrative assistant, Ewing Hass, an old pal of Kuchel’s throughout his political years, looked me over and figured it might be worth a chance. He arranged for me to meet with Kuchel back in California a few weeks later, and I did, chatting at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. He offered me a spot on his staff and a salary of $10,000 a year. I accepted it right there.

A few days later, I broke the news to my parents, who had hoped I would stay in Monterey. I assured them it was a great opportunity and predicted I’d be back in a couple years after picking up some useful experience. Sylvia and I then packed up our blue VW bug, strapped a luggage rack to the roof, and put the boys, still in diapers, in the back. Our first stop was Disneyland, which had just opened a few years earlier. Then it was across the country—Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, St. Louis—one Holiday Inn at a time. We arrived in Washington on a cold April day, and soon found a house for rent in Northwest D.C. We had made it across the country to the nation’s capital. Our Washington life began that spring.

I was twenty-seven years old, four years older than my father was when he came to America. He had arrived in the East, gone west, and reaped the rewards of a generous nation; I had begun where he ended up and now was back east, determined to return the favor.


“Look at Yourself in the Mirror”

We are not always able to pick our mentors, and some of those who take on those roles later disappoint. Not so with Tom Kuchel. He was a good, principled, moderate man, unafraid of being attacked, unwilling to give up on what was right in order to adapt to what was popular. His career was studded with accomplishment and riddled by base and false accusations. It was my great luck to work with him early in my career, when his lessons could leave lasting imprints.

His father was a crusading California journalist who had helped expose and oust the Ku Klux Klan from elected positions in Anaheim early in the twentieth century. Kuchel inherited a taste for combat, a love of stories, and appreciation for a punch line. His friend Ewing Hass collected jokes, and as the two of them walked side by side from the Old Senate Office Building to the Capitol whip office, Hass would share the latest, and Kuchel’s laugh would boom through the underground train tunnels.

Kuchel radiated strength. His will matched his voice, and he even strode with purpose. He was not very tall, but was one of those men whom others remember as taller than they were, perhaps because he met friends and adversaries eye to eye. He would seal deals over a bourbon, and he deeply believed that in politics, your word was your bond. He expected the same from others. For him, politics was not trivial or cynical, but rather a commitment to public service.

Kuchel’s rise through California politics was largely the work of Earl Warren. First elected to the California State Assembly in 1936 and then the State Senate in 1940, Kuchel was called to active duty in the Naval Reserve, where he served until 1945. When he returned, Warren saw a young senator with similar beliefs, experience in Sacramento, and a war record; ever canny, Warren appointed him state controller in 1946, a move that reflected well on both of them. And of course it was Warren a few years later who put Kuchel in the U.S. Senate.

Barely had I begun to comprehend my duties when I received my first lesson from Kuchel. We met in his Capitol office, a space just off the Senate chambers reserved for the minority whip. Kuchel could be warm and welcoming, but in this session he was stern.

“Look,” he said, “you’re going to be tempted in this town. There are going to be a lot of people who will want to take you to lunch. They’ll try to give you gifts. They’ll try to use you to get to me on issues. And I just want you to remember that our job here is to serve the public interest and the people of California. That’s number one.”

He spoke with such conviction that I’m sure I swallowed hard at that. But he wasn’t done.

“And number two, remember: When you get up in the morning, you have to look at yourself in the mirror.”

Some may regard those sentiments as corny or old-fashioned, out of kilter with the wry cynicism that pervades so much of Washington today. I received those words differently. They spoke to my sense of obligation and even to the self-importance that I felt as a young aide suddenly thrust into the fast currents of national policy. They meant something genuine, and they came from a man worthy of admiration. I have never forgotten them, and I have always tried to live up to them.

As I came to know Kuchel better, I grew to appreciate what an uncommon character he was—principled without being particularly ideological, forceful without being doctrinaire. He was supportive of the president on foreign affairs, which meant that in 1966, when I arrived, he was a determined backer of President Johnson on Vietnam, as he had been of Eisenhower’s foreign and military policy. He greatly admired Senator Richard Russell on national defense questions, and consistently voted to increase defense spending. He subscribed to the notion that politics stopped at the water’s edge.

On budget matters, he was reliably conservative, again in the Eisenhower tradition. He believed the nation should balance its budget, and he carefully scrutinized spending for hints of waste or misuse.

In those senses, he could be considered a modern conservative, but he also felt deeply about causes that would be associated with today’s liberals. He was a committed environmentalist who devoted much of his work on the Interior Committee to protecting California redwoods. When he introduced a bill to create a redwood preserve in Northern California, he did it with typical aplomb. He wanted the legislation passed, Kuchel said, “because God’s magnificent, awe-inspiring northern California virgin redwood giants ought to be preserved for humanity, rather than be chopped down from mountainsides to be made into 2 by 4’s.”1 Kuchel described the passage of that bill, in 1968, as “a most satisfying note on which to close my Senate career.”2

Kuchel supported federal aid to education and the Atomic Test Ban Treaty, and he voted for Medicare, which he cited as an example of “governing for the many.”3

Perhaps most important, he was a leading advocate for civil rights: Working closely with Senator Hubert Humphrey, Kuchel delivered Republican votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—landmark bills in President Johnson’s legacy that could not be won on party-line votes because southern Democrats, led by Russell, bolted from the president’s coalition. Kuchel, joined by such Republican moderates as Jacob Javits of New York, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, and George Aiken of Vermont, made possible the passage of those bills.

For Kuchel, politics was personal, and he both worked the relationships that made progress possible and appreciated others who did it well. One year, Lyndon Johnson called Kuchel’s mother on her birthday. Kuchel was delighted, and Johnson knew he’d sealed a friendship.

Kuchel also understood enemies, and he had his share. Just before I went to work for him, a Los Angeles police officer and a New Jersey publisher determined to smear him had conspired to fabricate a police affidavit alleging that he was homosexual. Needless to say, those were different times, when the mere accusation that a politician was gay carried strong negative consequences. The senator, who was married and had a daughter, was shocked. He flew to California and met with the Los Angeles district attorney and chief of police, who promised an investigation. It concluded that the allegations were false, and the LAPD officer was fired. Kuchel sued for libel and the defendants pleaded no contest. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and suspicion would long hover around him.

Among my first responsibilities as Kuchel’s assistant was to coordinate our office’s efforts on federal housing legislation to strike at racially discriminatory practices in that field. Housing was a contentious issue at the time, particularly in California. In 1964, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 14, which overturned a fair housing law passed by the legislature. The proposition specifically permitted all property owners the right to refuse to sell or rent to anyone based on his or her race or religion. It was one of my home state’s periodic populist convulsions, and like some of the others, it raised the specter of leading other states to follow.

In Washington, the civil rights leadership in and out of Congress concluded that the best way to head off a state-by-state stampede for such measures was to enact federal legislation that would preempt any such state action. That meant that Congress’s civil rights attention moved from public accommodations and voting to housing. Kuchel, having played an influential role in those other debates, was naturally well suited to help lead this one as well, this time with me as his legislative aide.

We established a legislative team to work for passage of the bill, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The key players were legislative aides from the offices of senators Phil Hart of Michigan, Robert Kennedy of New York, Jacob Javits, and Hugh Scott, among others. We were working on revisions of the bill to attract more votes when Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the minority leader, made the decision to support it because “the time had come.” His support was critical to passing the bill because he brought along other conservative Republicans.

Kuchel was up for reelection in 1968, the year that the center seemed to collapse in American politics. Consumed by the war in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson stunned the country on March 31 when he concluded a national address by announcing that he intended to devote the remaining months of his term to the war and that, consequently, “I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Less than a week later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and city after city, including Washington, dissolved into riots.

It was early evening in Washington when word of King’s death swept the city. Kuchel was meeting in a Capitol office with a group of Hollywood CEOs. I was in the Senate Office Building. I could see police officers putting sandbags in place, as if expecting an assault on the Capitol. Worried that we might be about to be trapped, I rushed over to pull Kuchel from his meeting.

“Senator, these riots are getting out of control,” I told him. “We probably ought to let these people go.”

He went to the window and took in the dismaying sight of smoke curling from distant fires and nervous guardsmen taking positions. “You’d better get moving,” he announced to all of us. Everyone left, the CEOs to their hotels and planes, and the staff scattering to our homes.

As I drove home that night, it felt as though the efforts of the past two years had come to nothing. We had passed important bills to give the government new power to enforce and extend civil rights. School districts that discriminated on the basis of race now stood to lose federal funding. State efforts to enforce all-white neighborhoods now violated federal law. And yet King’s assassination peeled back the frustration and anger of those who felt those efforts to be far too little. Detroit burned. Washington burned. Baltimore and Chicago erupted. Other cities, large and small, North and South, trembled with violence and apprehension.

It was difficult to believe that the Capitol of the United States was under siege and that the work of civil rights was going up in all too literal smoke. Was everything we had tried to achieve lost? The American promise of equality was truly being put to the test, and so were all of those, like Kuchel, who had embraced that promise.

What’s more, Kuchel still had a reelection to win. His support for civil rights and antidiscrimination legislation solidified support from the left, but the phony allegations about his sexual orientation and his general disdain for the right wing of the Republican Party—Kuchel had refused to endorse Richard Nixon for governor in 1962, Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, or Ronald Reagan for governor in 1966—made him vulnerable to an attack from the right. In 1968, he got it from Max Rafferty. Rafferty may not warrant more than a footnote in most histories, but in 1968 he played a decisive and tragic role.

Rafferty was the California superintendent of public instruction, best known for educational writing that advocated a rejection of modern teaching methods and a return to “basics.” Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t have been much of a résumé to challenge a sitting U.S. senator who occupied a leadership position in his party in Washington, but the personal allegations against Kuchel found purchase in the right-wing crannies of the California party, and the John Birch Society saw its opportunity to tear down a senator who had long aggravated its leadership.

The Birch Society’s charge against Kuchel seems almost absurd to mention today. The group had alleged that a group of Chinese communists were training in Mexico in preparation for an invasion of California. Society members wrote to Kuchel to demand that he take action. He investigated, concluded that the scenario was ridiculous, and sent back form letters to his correspondents dismissing the entire idea. For this, he was accused of “treason.” Kuchel, who had fought for his country in wartime and devoted his life to service on its behalf, was flabbergasted and furious.

Admittedly, he could come off as high-handed in his fencing with the right. After Reagan won the Republican primary in 1966, for instance, Kuchel barely could stomach a congratulatory remark, and the state’s party chairman, Gaylord Parkinson, warned the senator that he expected his support in the fall. Failing to give it would “be a disappointment to me and all loyal Republicans,” Parkinson warned.

I’ll never forget Kuchel’s reply: “Who the hell is Parkinson?”

That was a fair question, but it didn’t help patch things up with California conservatives. By 1968, Kuchel was fairly alienated from his own party, and that made Rafferty unexpectedly viable. Still, those of us working for Kuchel assumed he would pull off a victory in the primary, and we busily fed position papers to his political consultants to make sure that his record was accurately portrayed and that the absurd questions about his patriotism were put to rest.

We thought we’d made the case, and on election night we gathered in Los Angeles for the returns. At first the news was good. Precincts throughout Northern California showed him with a commanding lead in that part of the state, in those days its more liberal half. But as returns came in from the south, Kuchel’s lead shrank. Orange County, where he was from, went solidly for Rafferty; Los Angeles was closer but broke in Rafferty’s favor. The crusher was San Diego, where Kuchel had hoped to hold his own. Instead, it went heavily for Rafferty. In the end, with more than two million votes cast, Rafferty won by sixty-nine thousand.

We glumly absorbed that news—my recollection is that Kuchel took it better than the rest of us—only to be shocked from our sulking by a report from across town. Bobby Kennedy, who had just won California’s Democratic primary for president, had been shot at the Ambassador Hotel and was gravely wounded. Kennedy lived through the night and the following day before being pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. on June 6, a little more than twenty-four hours after the shooting in the hotel pantry. In a sense, the shock has never faded.

It’s sometimes said that you don’t really understand politics until you’ve lost. If so, 1968 was my real immersion in politics. We had won what I considered important victories in the Senate and produced bills of lasting consequence to protect the environment and remedy discrimination. But it wasn’t enough. Progress on civil rights wasn’t enough to allow the nation to peacefully absorb the death of King, and legislative progress wasn’t enough to protect Kuchel against political retaliation. As usual, he handled it better than I. His farewell to his colleagues captured his essential philosophy of government:

Some of the votes I have cast I know have been very costly to me politically. I think, however, if there is one measure of satisfaction in the life of a legislator, it comes at the time he tallies the votes which he believed in his own mind were right, just and appropriate, even if he knew that the balance of public opinion was against him, and, sometimes, violently against him. . . . I think it is not only permissible but, indeed, vital that the Senate of the United States lead public opinion instead of following it. That is the difficult path but the only one to tread if our republic is to remain.4

At a time of growing turmoil in politics, Kuchel remained true to himself. Integrity mattered more to him than survival. It was a lesson I would not forget.


“You Did What Was Right”

I was out of a job. It was tempting to ditch politics altogether. Kuchel offered me a position in the law firm he was joining, and there was always the option of returning to Monterey and practicing law there. I considered both, but it’s in moments such as those that the lessons of youth matter. In this case, I reflected on the perseverance of my parents—their steady commitment to the restaurant and their children, their abiding gratitude to the country that had made that possible. With those notions kicking around my head and with Sylvia’s support, I decided I’d try to stick around Washington a little longer.

I had a couple of options, including an appealing invitation to join the Senate staff of Ed Brooke of Massachusetts. Brooke’s politics were reminiscent of Kuchel’s, and Massachusetts seemed less likely to rise up behind the Birch Society than California had. And I’d gotten to know Brooke a bit during my time in the Capitol. Still, it felt a bit like a continuation of my work for Kuchel rather than a new challenge, so I hesitated before accepting.

In the meantime, Nixon won the general election in November, and began building his cabinet. One promising selection was Bob Finch, a California politician and longtime Nixon supporter who had been serving as lieutenant governor of California. Finch, whose plainspoken style and steely blue eyes made him a media favorite, fit squarely within the moderate Republican tradition that I considered myself a part of, and I was encouraged to hear that he was the leading contender to head the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Finch was a successful political figure—in 1966, he actually received more votes for lieutenant governor than Reagan did on that same ballot for governor. And his ties to Nixon were long and deep, since he had first worked with him in 1948, when Nixon was up for reelection to Congress. Finch helped persuade Nixon to vote for the Marshall Plan and put together a pamphlet for the young candidate entitled “The Amazing Richard Nixon.”1 Their friendship was sealed from that point on.

So in the fall of 1968, when I got a call from John Veneman—a former California state legislator and friend of Finch’s—asking if I’d be interested in helping organize a transition team for Finch’s HEW, I accepted. Veneman promised to create an “action team” that would put HEW at the forefront of the Nixon cabinet. On December 13, 1968, I found myself in the lobby of the agency’s headquarters, a bit awed by the black-and-white photographs of HEW employees around the country delivering medical services, helping children in school, working in labs. I was impressed.

Which is not the same as saying that I accepted the position without at least some reservations. Like many close political observers in 1968, I was unsure where Richard Nixon stood on some of the preeminent social issues of the day, especially in the area of civil rights. As vice president under Eisenhower, he was associated with some of that administration’s solid, if underappreciated, work on racial discrimination—eliminating segregation in the District of Columbia and on federal military bases, as well as support for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the appointment of a number of judges and justices committed to the cause of ending segregation in schools and other public facilities. At the same time, however, Nixon had actively courted the support of leading segregationists, including South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, during the presidential campaign and had consequently run well in the South. That was the much-discussed “Southern strategy,” and it naturally raised the question of what commitments Nixon had made in return for that support. So while I was optimistic about Finch and his priorities, I was torn over what to think about Nixon and where he might lead HEW.

Although nominated, Finch still had to be confirmed. There didn’t seem much doubt that he’d be approved—he was popular in Congress and with the media and a favorite of the president—but his comments would be closely watched for evidence of the administration’s resolve on school desegregation. Finch traveled to the Hill to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on January 14, and at first it seemed to go well. His transition team had prepared a meticulous binder of briefing papers, and Finch had studied well. “We must keep the pressure up,” he said of the school integration efforts, “and it must be constant pressure.”

So far, so good. But then Finch improvised a bit. “Each community is a different slice of America,” he noted. “Each area has a chemistry all of its own. You don’t just come in with a meat-axe and bludgeon somebody into compliance.” That was the sort of equivocation with which I was soon to become painfully familiar.

With his nomination secure, Finch then asked me to join him at HEW as a special assistant. I accepted, though again with some hesitation about how much latitude the department would have to pursue its mission. Key to that question was the role that HEW had when it came to enforcing school desegregation. Essentially, the lever that Congress gave HEW was school funding. In order to receive their share of federal education money, districts were required to submit desegregation plans to the department for approval. HEW’s Civil Rights Office would review those plans and determine whether the federal money should continue or be cut off. That gave school districts—most, but not all, in the South—a powerful reason to comply and to end the long stalling game many had entered into in the 1950s and 1960s.

Underlying HEW’s role was the Supreme Court’s landmark rulings in Brown v. Board of Education. The first Brown decision, handed down by the young Warren Court in 1954, less than a year after Earl Warren became chief justice, concluded that separating students by race in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. It famously held that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”2

The Court declined in that first ruling to issue a specific order to guide school districts, but returned to the issue the following term. Then, in what became known as “Brown II,” the Court directed that desegregation proceed with “all deliberate speed,” an unfortunately vague formulation that led, as scholars have noted, to much deliberation and not much speed. Indeed, the decade or so following Brown saw monumental efforts to avoid desegregation—the best known being the Little Rock Crisis of 1957, when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus cynically obstructed integration of Little Rock’s Central High School until Eisenhower responded by sending in the 101st Airborne. Notably little progress was made.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first federal law since Reconstruction to place the federal government in defense of the rights of ordinary black Americans. Though that act accomplished relatively little, it did allow the Justice Department to enforce voting and other rights. Then, in 1964, President Johnson picked up the civil rights efforts that Kennedy had pursued halfheartedly and ham-handedly and secured passage of a much more far-reaching bill. The act he signed that year was meant to eliminate segregation in public accommodations, and it also included language under Title IV and Title VI that affected schools—in the former case, through the use of a carrot; in the latter, a stick. Title IV allowed HEW, through its Education Office, to lend assistance to school districts in their desegregation efforts; that was hardly controversial. Title VI, however, forbade the federal government from spending money on any activity that discriminated on the basis of race, color, or national origin. In practice, that meant the federal government, again through HEW, was obligated to cut off funds from any school district that segregated its students.

Still, there was no overstating the tenacity and creativity of segregationists. They fought in the courts, in Congress, and in school boards across the South, bitterly contesting any effort to allow black and white children to sit beside one another in classrooms. By 1969, there still were far too many communities with a pair of high schools—one named for Booker T. Washington, the other for Robert E. Lee.

The job of evaluating school district desegregation plans fell to HEW’s Office for Civil Rights, which was headed in early 1969 by Ruby Martin, a strong black woman who was rightly admired within the department. In my role as special assistant, I worked closely with Martin, and we were confronted right away with challenges from southern officials who believed that Nixon would grant them more time and latitude when it came to the integration they so virulently opposed.

In the closing days of the Johnson administration, the departing head of HEW, Wilbur Cohen, had notified Congress that five South Carolina school districts were about to lose their federal funding because their desegregation plans were inadequate. The money was scheduled to run out on January 29, nine days after Nixon took the oath of office. The timing and location of the districts ensured that their fate would send an early signal of the new administration’s approach to these questions: South Carolina was the home of Senator Thurmond; no man was more instrumental in persuading southern segregationists to trust Nixon, and no set of school districts mattered more to him. It was, as Veneman put it, “cashing-in time for the southerners.”

Finch could have met this threat with resolve. He could have let the money simply run out and forced the districts back to the table with a new plan. In fairness, cutoffs did hurt innocent people—some children lost programs and teachers, and sometimes it was black schools that were hurt the worst. So there were good reasons not to go that route cavalierly. But we all knew that if we didn’t fight now, we would only have to fight harder later, because any indication that these terms were negotiable would invite more negotiation. Unfortunately, Finch vacillated.

Stories in the press began to suggest that the cutoff was up for debate, and various congressional aides and others said a deal was in the works to postpone the cutoff while the districts prepared new plans. Finch’s response was to order the rest of us not to comment. The department’s official position was only that the matter was under discussion.

The problem with that was that it suggested there was something worthy of discussion. These districts’ plans had been rejected by the secretary of HEW, Cohen. They had been warned of the consequences, and now they had to face them, or the agency would appear to be driven by politics rather than the law or the principles it was required to uphold.

I suggested an alternative to postponement: Cut off the funds as scheduled, but also dispatch negotiating teams to South Carolina in an attempt to reach a quick agreement, and then restart the funds once the terms were accepted. Ruby Martin received that idea warily, and Veneman captured the mood of the staff when he broke it to her: “Ruby,” he said, “we’ve decided not to sell out completely.” When she heard the proposal, she was relieved, but still worried that we’d cave in the end.

What followed were days of grinding diplomacy—with Thurmond leaning on the White House in one direction, the Civil Rights Office and Finch’s deputies pulling in the other, and Finch desperately searching for a center. In the end, my proposal held. It was exhausting and largely successful, but it hardly reassured me about Finch’s core principles. Jim Batten, a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, who followed the debate quite closely, summarized it best: “If the lively jousting of the past few days is any indication, more behind-the-scene struggles can be expected inside and outside the Administration before Nixon’s own policy becomes clear-cut. . . . The end of the confusion is not in sight.”3

Finch’s reflection: “Christ, I hope we don’t have to do this every time.”

Well, it didn’t happen every time, but one consequence of that early deal was that segregationists figured it wouldn’t hurt to fight—and to call in their chits with members of Congress and the administration. Ruby Martin wearied of it quickly and left in March of that year. On March 28, Finch asked me to replace her. I’d been at the agency for just three months, and the offer carried immense responsibility as well as considerable prestige for a thirty-year-old lawyer who less than a year earlier had been a fairly anonymous Senate aide. Sylvia urged me to take it, and my friends warned of the inherent difficulties of representing the Nixon administration in this charged and conflicted area.

After sleeping on it, I told Veneman I’d give it a stab, but asked him if I could be sure of the secretary. Rather than speak for him, Jack put me through to Finch at home, where the secretary was recovering from the flu.

We exchanged a few clipped pleasantries—he was rasping and wheezy—and then I got to the point. “As you know,” I said, “there’s been a hell of a lot of pressure on this issue and I’m pretty committed to seeing the law enforced strongly. I hope I have your commitment for that kind of enforcement and wanted to make mine clear.”

Finch may have been sick, but he was clear: “Hell yes, it’s a tough area and we’ll have to walk some thin lines, but there’ll be no relaxation of enforcement.”

With that, I took the job.

Tom Kuchel had cast one of the proudest votes of his life for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He’d gone to the Senate with a blanket and a pillow to ride out any filibuster of the bill. He’d prevailed. It was now my job to make his vote matter. For the first time in my life, I held a position of executive responsibility. I had a staff of 278 lawyers and others, most in Washington, the rest in regional offices around the country.

Before I could settle in to my new duties, Sylvia’s mother arrived for a visit and had news I had long dreaded. My mother, whose cancer had first been detected years earlier but had then gone into remission, was now gravely ill. Those years between were a godsend. They allowed her to return home and to get to know her older grandchildren. She cooked and immersed herself in her family, enjoying a respite from a lifetime of hard work amid the shade of walnut and peach trees in the Carmel Valley. As her health deteriorated, my father set up a bed for her downstairs in their home so that she could lie peacefully with her family nearby. They had no health insurance, but my father used savings to bring in nurses and to make sure she was comfortable—what we today would describe as hospice. But my mother could not hold off cancer forever. Hearing that she was failing, I booked a flight home. As I prepared to leave, my father called to tell me my mother had died. It was May 8, 1969. The obituary in the Monterey Peninsula Herald noted that she would be “remembered by her many friends as a lady of great beauty and gentle dignity.”4 Although I was too late to say good-bye—something I have always regretted—I flew home to comfort my father and bury my mother. I stayed a few days, and then returned to Washington.

Over the next nine months, the pattern of the first South Carolina debate was replayed time and again—the Civil Rights Office, now under my leadership, pushed hard to enforce the law in Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, even a few northern school districts. Local representatives pushed back and put pressure on the White House, which invariably tried to reassure us that it was committed to the law while winking at our opponents and hinting that they could get time or substantive relief and suggesting that the office—and I—were out of step with the administration.

Occasionally the mask would fall away and the politics of the situation would stare at us directly. That happened during a visit from a group of Mississippi politicians who came to complain that we were pushing too hard. I explained our determination and responsibility to enforce the law, and the head of the delegation, a man named Charlie Reed, responded, “Look, we had a commitment from Nixon that he was going to back off. We expect you to follow through on that.”

I replied the only way I could: “I have a responsibility to enforce the law, and I’m sworn to do that.”

The work was tense and frantic and sometimes frightening. When my staff and I visited particularly hostile communities in the Deep South, we would put Scotch tape on the hoods of our cars before leaving them; when we returned, we’d check to see that the tape was still there to make sure they hadn’t been tampered with. Bombs were on our minds.

I was called periodically to testify before or otherwise communicate with members of Congress, and no less an ardent racist than Senator James Eastland, the immensely powerful head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, once chomped on his cigar, looked me in the eye, and coolly informed me of what I was up against: “Let me tell you something. It is never going to happen. You are never going to integrate schools in the South.” I guess it goes without saying that he said that without a hint of apology or admission that his determination defied the law of his country and his oath to uphold it. Such were the tensions of those days.

As the pressure mounted through 1969, I tried a couple of times to reach out to the White House, hoping for support or, failing that, at least clarity. John Ehrlichman agreed to meet with me. We had lunch at the White House mess in June. Ehrlichman didn’t show much that day, asking more questions and playing with me like a prosecutor grilling a witness. He asked me about the law and the room for flexibility. At one point he pressed on the issue of “free choice,” districts that purported to be integrating by allowing students to choose their schools; in practice, very few blacks chose predominantly white schools, and virtually no white students volunteered for historically black schools, so “choice” really was a mask for continued segregation. I explained that. He nodded without comment, nibbling on his hamburger and cottage cheese, which was already known to be President Nixon’s favorite meal.

I left the meeting feeling I had not accomplished much but that at least I had helped make clear that the law offered no options other than desegregation, even if the administration preferred options for political purposes. A few days later, however, Finch confronted me in his office and told me that my conversation with Ehrlichman had confirmed his impression of me as a “bloodthirsty integrationist.” I could tell that Finch was growing impatient with me and with the pressure that this issue was putting upon him and his relations with Nixon.

As the pressure mounted, Sylvia gave birth to our third son, Jimmy, on October 1, 1969, at Sibley Hospital in Washington. Both he and a new collie pup—we named her Lassie, of course—joined our family at about the same time and gave us great comfort during those difficult days.

Work, however, was growing more and more difficult. In desperation, I drafted a letter of resignation to demonstrate how serious I was about doing my job or leaving it if I was not allowed to. I worried about that. I wanted to prevail in these debates, not run from them. Besides, I was a young father with three sons, so I was hardly in a position to simply walk off a job. After a few stressful days, Finch checked with the White House and reported back to me that my offer to resign had been rejected. I breathed a little easier and kept on with the work, though mindful that I had few friends at the top levels of the Nixon administration and thus could hardly count my position as secure.

One morning, that became abundantly clear, in uniquely Washington fashion. I woke up early on February 17, 1970, and opened the Washington Daily News (this was back in the days when Washington had several morning papers) to discover a story that caught my eye. NIXON SEEKS TO FIRE HEW’S RIGHTS CHIEF FOR LIBERAL VIEWS, it announced. I didn’t need to be told who that was about. It was attributed to “Congressional sources,” and indicated that I was all but finished.

Partly puzzled and plenty worried, I raced to Finch’s office to make sure he hadn’t heard anything. “No, no,” he said, “continue to deny it.” He promised to call the White House and inquire about how to respond to this false report.

The first response was an ominous silence. The next was a staggering falsehood: Asked about the report at an afternoon news conference, Press Secretary Ron Ziegler responded, “It is my understanding that Mr. Panetta has submitted his resignation to Secretary Finch. . . . I think it has been accepted, and HEW, as I understand it, will have an announcement on that sometime today.” At that point it didn’t seem like there was much reason to fight on, so I offered to spare the secretary any further embarrassment by writing out a resignation letter and submitting it to him.

He was chagrined and apologetic—and mindful, I’m sure, that this was a pretty stark demonstration of the White House’s disregard for him as well. “I’m sorry that this happened,” he said to me. I believed that.

I was allowed to meet briefly with the press, and that was a tricky affair. I tried not to inflame the issue and did my best not to add to Finch’s embarrassment, but reporters understood that this wasn’t my idea, and correctly concluded that I’d been the victim of pressure from Nixon’s political team, which wanted slower progress on desegregation in order to shore up Nixon’s southern support. The coverage was respectful of me and skeptical of the White House, a precursor of the power struggles—and public response—that would eventually sink Nixon. It goes without saying that I was one of the least surprised people in the country when details of the Watergate scandal began emerging a few years later.

But that was still in the future. For now, I was out of work and chiefly consumed with how to support my family. Thankfully, Sylvia never wavered. As the walls were closing in on that fateful day of Ziegler’s press conference, I confided my fears to her. “I’m worried about you and the kids and our future. What’s it mean to us?” She was calmer than I was. “Don’t be worried—we’ve always managed before,” she said. “You did what was right.”

I learned some lessons from my first firing. I’d been naïve not to cultivate a better relationship with the White House and instead to rely on Finch to run interference for me. And I’d made the rookie mistake of assuming that because I believed so strongly in our mission others would come around. I filed those realizations away.

But I’d also been able to reinforce some old values. Helped by my wife and supportive colleagues, I tried to be clear on the difference between being personally accommodating and philosophically consistent. I’ve never set out to be deliberately antagonistic or to embarrass those with whom I disagree, but I also felt that there were lines I wouldn’t cross. I would not refuse to enforce the law because of political calculations any more than Tom Kuchel would endorse Goldwater or Reagan when he thought they were ill-suited to the offices they sought. Those decisions had cost Kuchel his position permanently; for me, the setback was more temporary, though I had no way of knowing that as I left the HEW building a few days later with a cardboard box full of the contents of my desk, including pictures of Kuchel and Nixon—one who gave me my start in government, the other who kicked me out the door.

There was one other observation I made from my run-in with the Nixon White House, and it influenced my next career move. As I mentioned earlier, I supported Nixon in 1960 in part because I believed that he and I shared a common political heritage—the moderate Republican tradition that was so influential during my youth. But governing in that tradition was not compatible in 1969 with nurturing the Southern strategy, and it seemed clear to me that Nixon was being pulled to his right. Moreover, the demise of moderate Republicanism was afoot elsewhere too. In 1964, Goldwater had bragged that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”5 Those boasts were deliberately intended as a repudiation of Eisenhower’s moderation,* and even though Goldwater was trounced by Johnson in that election, the party had commenced a cleansing of its moderate elements, a self-immolation that eventually claimed the likes of Charles Goodell, Jacob Javits, and Edward Brooke, among so many others. Those Republicans who survived it were forced to change, and onetime moderates such as Reagan, who talked tough as California governor but also repeatedly raised taxes and cut deals with Democrats, reinvented themselves as heirs to Goldwater. It is striking to realize that Dwight Eisenhower, the commanding and immensely popular Republican president, would have a tough time winning his party’s nomination today.

In 1970, the purge of moderates was under way but incomplete. And as I was looking for a place to land, there was still at least one promising Republican centrist with national ambitions and seemingly a chance to advance them. John Lindsay was mayor of New York. He was an attractive leader who rode a flashy, patrician image from his years in the House of Representatives to a successful mayoral run in 1965. He reminded many people of John Kennedy—he was witty and cultured; he enjoyed the company of celebrities yet also roamed the streets of New York in shirtsleeves picking up trash or scolding limo drivers for double-parking.6

Few people were immune to Lindsay’s charms—interestingly, one who found them easy to resist was New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who used to drive Lindsay crazy by calling him “Johnny.” I certainly saw promise in Lindsay. At the same time, he saw an opportunity in me as well. Lindsay was positioning to run for president as a liberal alternative to Nixon’s rightward drift, and I’d just been offed by Nixon after a struggle over the pace and direction of school integration. For me, Lindsay represented a job, which I was desperate for, and another opportunity to join a politician who espoused my values; for him, I was a potential aide with Washington experience and a reputation for fighting on behalf of the party’s waning liberal values. He tendered a job, and I accepted.

I didn’t go immediately. My minor celebrity over the Nixon flap generated a book offer, and I took it, working with Peter Gall, a friend and former colleague from HEW and Kuchel’s office. We holed up in an office lent to us by Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund and pounded out an account of my brief, heated tenure at HEW. Titled Bring Us Together, it wasn’t the great American novel, but it was well received and helped establish me in political terms as an early foe of Nixon, an investment that would pay off when the depth of Nixon’s dishonesty and lawlessness was revealed to the public.

Once Peter and I had finished the manuscript, we shipped it off to Lippincott, our publisher, and then I headed for New York to begin work with Lindsay. Sylvia and I found an older home on the northern tip of Staten Island, not far from, of all things, Nixon Avenue. The home looked out toward the newly built World Trade Center towers at the southern end of Manhattan. I took the Staten Island Ferry to work—not a bad commute. I passed the Statue of Liberty every day on the way to city hall.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I’d overestimated Lindsay a bit, and that his mastery of his office wasn’t as impressive up close as it had seemed from a distance. That may have reflected his route through New York politics.

As a young lawyer and World War II veteran, Lindsay had impressed Herbert Brownell, a close adviser to Eisenhower and later his attorney general. Brownell had brought Lindsay to the administration, and he nurtured him as a potential candidate. In 1958, Lindsay saw his opportunity and ran for a congressional seat on Manhattan’s East Side. He built a solid record there: He supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed the war in Vietnam, and refused to endorse Goldwater for president. In many ways, he resembled Kuchel.

After four terms, he was still only forty-three years old, but when Mayor Robert Wagner decided not to run for reelection in 1965, Lindsay took a chance and announced his candidacy, despite no real experience in urban politics. He won a very close race, threading the needle between Democrat Abe Beame and William F. Buckley’s Conservative Party candidacy, and then faced the far more difficult challenge of governing the ungovernable city. It did not go especially well.

Yes, he had charm and charisma, but he often seemed overmatched by the rough politics of New York. By the time I came to work for him, he’d already bumped up against those politics, memorably during the snowstorm in the winter of 1969. The storm paralyzed much of Queens, where city plows could not get through. Stranded residents blamed Lindsay, and with some good reason, as his relations with the city unions were famously raucous.

My job was to coordinate his intergovernmental relations, and Lindsay kept me busy. His presidential campaign wasn’t official at that point, but the people around him were pushing it, and he warmed to the national stage. He was often testifying in Congress or giving speeches, and looking for opportunities to offer big, creative ideas. He had me play around for a while, for instance, with a proposal for New York City to break off and become its own state. That didn’t go far, but it was illustrative of Lindsay’s leadership—grand, provocative, but not so great at the basics. When New York’s garbagemen struck, Lindsay sent me out to talk with them on the theory that they might listen to an Italian. They didn’t.

I only stayed with Lindsay for a year, but I did learn some things. Even in the chaotic, combative politics of New York, relationships matter. Lindsay thought he could lead by intellect and ideas, and he neglected the more basic work of making allies. It’s impossible to imagine John Lindsay calling up the mother of a city council member and wishing her a happy birthday, the way Johnson did with Kuchel. I also came away with a deeper appreciation for the complexity of urban issues—the labor relations and service demands that lie at the core of municipal government. At a fundamental level, the work of local government really isn’t political, ideological, or even particularly intellectual. It’s about picking up trash and clearing streets of snow, and there really isn’t a Republican or Democratic way of providing those services. In fact, local government can teach federal officials a great deal about what the public wants. At the local level, politics can be heated, but constituents have a way of grounding it. They’ll get mad at any politician who puts them at risk or lets them down, and responsibility is far easier to fix than in Washington’s more abstract debates.

Lindsay and I parted on good terms. He turned to his presidential campaign, which didn’t go far, and I headed for home. Sylvia, Jimmy, and Lassie flew on one of the new 747s back to California. My father had located a home for us to rent on Valle Vista in Carmel Valley. Sylvia settled in and waited for the rest of the family to arrive, as the older boys and I set out on a cross-country car vacation. Christopher and Carmelo joined me in our family station wagon—we still had the VW, and this time we towed it—for the drive west. Like my parents before me, we stopped in Sheridan, Wyoming, to visit our cousins. The morning after we arrived, there was twelve inches of new snow on the ground. After a pleasant visit, we set out again, but struggled. It took several tries on icy roads, but we finally made it out of Wyoming and back to California.

We were home in Monterey, this time for me to join my brother’s law practice. He and I would work together for the next five years. But it would not be long before public life would call again.


“No More Excuses”

After a rough couple years, it was a relief finally to be home. And after a lifetime of admiring my older brother, it was a treat to practice law with him. He already had a healthy practice and an office in one of the properties my father had bought with the money from the sale of the restaurant. Along with two other partners, we operated in a modest two-story building right across from city hall in Monterey (my brother’s office is still there today).

As was true for many lawyers in those days, we did a bit of everything—criminal, civil, corporate, probate. Given my background with the Civil Rights Office at HEW, I was drawn to civil rights cases, and clients with discrimination grievances naturally sought me out. One group of prospective Latino students and employees sued the newly opened University of California at Santa Cruz, and we settled with the university after agreeing to hiring and admissions standards that would encourage ethnic diversity. I also took on the local NAACP as a client.

One thing about practicing small-town law is that it’s a foolproof way of getting to know people and their issues. My brother was already well known in the area, and gradually I developed a reputation as well, as someone who understood politics and the community and who knew the law. It was professionally and personally satisfying and a welcome change of pace. Leading a normal life with my family in one of the most beautiful spots on earth was not bad. But politics still tugged at me. Indeed, it seems in retrospect as if it was just a matter of time until I was drawn back into politics, though I didn’t intend it at the time.

I did some political soul-searching upon my return home. I remained committed to the ideals that initially animated my interest in public service—duty to country and a conviction that government could play a constructive role in the lives of its citizens. But some of the officials I most admired had passed from the scene: Eisenhower died in 1969, Warren retired from the Court the same year, Kuchel was back in Los Angeles practicing law. The party of Eisenhower and Warren had become that of Nixon and Agnew. Those tidal shifts—the ascension of the more conservative wing of the party and the evisceration of its liberal faction—convinced me that while my principles had not changed, the party to which I belonged no longer had room for me and people like me. The Democrats, by contrast, seemed to offer a bigger tent, with more room for disagreement among members united by broad principles. In 1972, I changed my registration to Democrat in time to vote for Hubert Humphrey in California’s Democratic primary.

It was not long after I left the Republican Party that it began to unravel from the top. The first reports of what would become known as Watergate began to trickle in during the summer of 1972, when the Washington Post reported that one of five men arrested after a break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office and hotel complex was the security coordinator of the Nixon campaign. The scandal simmered for a while, but persistent reporting by the press, especially the Post’s famous team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, revealed a far-reaching and malevolent political operation run from the highest levels of the White House. The administration targeted “enemies” for tax audits, played dirty tricks on political opponents, conducted break-ins and wiretapping, paid hush money to discourage operatives from testifying, and deliberately impeded investigations into wrongdoing by top administration officials. On March 1, 1974, seven of those officials, including the same John Erlichman who had stymied me at HEW, were indicted by a grand jury. Nixon resigned on August 8.

I was hardly surprised. I’d seen the Nixon administration’s willingness to bend principle to politics during my run at HEW. Nixon’s political operation was profoundly corrupt and a manifestation of the president’s insecurity and paranoia. It was only a matter of time before trouble caught up with it. And though I worried whether the presidency itself was damaged by the scandal, I was not sorry to see Nixon go and to have Gerald Ford, whom I used to see on the Hill when I worked for Kuchel, take his place.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B00INIXG6G
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Books (October 7, 2014)
  • Publication date ‏ : ‎ October 7, 2014
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 26400 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 511 pages
  • Lending ‏ : ‎ Not Enabled
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