Reflections on George H.W. Bush

Secretary Leon Panetta on working with Bush

By Yollette Merritt
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Leon Panetta with George H.W. Bush. The Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

A relatively small and select group of national and international leaders assembled at the Washington National Cathedral on Dec. 4 to honor the life and legacy of President George Herbert Walker Bush who died on Nov. 30 at the age of 94. Participants included members of royalty (e.g. Britain’s Prince Charles), current and former heads of state (e.g. Angela Merkel of Germany) and all five living U.S. Presidents and their First Ladies.

Among those in attendance was a member of the California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) community, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Monterey native, Panetta’s record of public service spans over more than half a century. Beginning in 1969, Panetta was director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, responsible for ensuring equal opportunity in public education. Representing the Central Coast, his 16-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives started in 1976. One of many projects championed during this period was the establishment of CSUMB as the second youngest institution in the state’s university system, as well as the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. After leaving the Clinton administration in 1997, Secretary Panetta joined with his wife Sylvia to establish and co-direct The Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSUMB which serves the entire California State University system. He was asked again to serve the nation under President Obama as CIA Director and later as Secretary of Defense.

Having just returned from Washington on an evening flight, Secretary Panetta was interviewed and asked to share his reflections on the life and legacy of President George H.W. Bush. The following are excerpts from his comments.

The Lutrinae: When and where did you first meet President George H.W. Bush and in what role?

Leon Panetta: I first met him when I was Director for the Office of Civil Rights, responsible for enforcing civil rights laws in regards to education. He was a Congressman from Texas and asked me to come and meet with him as he was concerned about some of the schools in his area, whether or not they were in compliance with civil rights laws. I found him to be very respectful, a very nice guy and sympathetic to the importance of enforcing civil rights laws. I never forgot that meeting.

In what capacities did you have additional contact?
As a member of Congress, I dealt with President [H.W.] Bush and his administration on a number of issues, but most importantly as Chairman of the House Budget Committee. I was very involved in the negotiations between Republicans, Democrats and the administration on developing a comprehensive budget agreement to reduce the deficit. We – representatives from the key committees of Budget, Ways and Means, Appropriations, and members of the Bush Administration- went out to Andrews Air Force base and met there for almost three weeks and negotiated a very comprehensive budget agreement that both reduced savings on the spending side, but also increased revenue with taxes. As Chairman, I had to guide the legislation through the House which passed successfully and for which the President commended me for my leadership.

Do you have three words to describe President George H.W. Bush?
First of all, he was the most decent person I’ve met in politics. He was very kind, very generous. He was a patriot, someone who served his country and was very dedicated to the country, doing what was right for the country. Also he was loyal – to the country, to our constitution and to our values.

Do you recall a memorable moment or two in your relationship with George H.W. Bush that you can share with the CSUMB and larger community?
Well, I’ve had a number of meetings with him, but the one I always remember is – as Chairman of the Budget Committee – I got invited to the White House along with other key committee chairs, both Democrats and Republicans. Normally, those kind of receptions would take place downstairs in the White House, probably in the main dining room or reception areas. Instead of downstairs, we found ourselves being ushered upstairs to the family quarters. The reception took place on the family quarters level and we had the opportunity to go into the Lincoln bedroom and visit the old Oval Office used by Franklin Roosevelt. Both he and Barbara Bush were just very gracious hosts, and I never forgot that. I thought, here we were in Washington, but it was very much like enjoying the company of two friends at their house.

What are lessons from your perspective that we can learn from George H. W. Bush’s life?
I think that the most important thing is that you can be a leader and at the same time be respectful of others and their humanity. There is no contradiction between leadership and generosity.

Looking from the perspective of time, what are your thoughts about the significance of the Bush presidency?
Obviously history will make its own judgements, but I think it’s pretty clear – as someone has framed it and I think it’s true – he is probably the best one-term president we’ve had in history. In his term of office, we had to deal with huge foreign challenges. He dealt with the demise of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the need to go in and push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, tough economic issues, and the passage of the Americans for Disabilities Act. When you look at the achievements in that short period of time, I think history will say that he accomplished as much in four years as some presidents have tried to do in eight years.

What are factors that you think made those accomplishments possible?
I think that part of it was because he was a decent human being. People liked to do things with him and he was willing and open to work with them. For our democracy to work, it really demands that we have leaders who carry those human values that are so important to the willingness of people to work together.

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