Leon Panetta Takes the Helm at the Pentagon
American statesman takes on tough new challenges
By Francesco Isgro*
As one of President Obama's most trusted advisors, it was not surprising that Leon Panetta was tapped to become the nation's 23rd Secretary of Defense.
In his former position as head of the CIA, Panetta, 73, had a number of significant successes. He accomplished his goals at the Agency by restoring staff morale, as well as by increasing the credibility of the organization by capturing the elusive Osama Bin Laden.
His new role at the Pentagon will be equally challenging. He will be expected to reduce the defense budget without antagonizing opponents of military cuts, and equally important, will be responsible for spearheading the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Few doubt that Panetta can accomplish his mission at the Pentagon. Obama has referred to Panetta as a public servant with ‟extraordinary management skills, great political savvy and an impeccable record of integrity."
Panetta was a White House Chief of Staff during the Clinton Administration and is a familiar face in the local Italian American community. He was honored by the National Italian American Foundation in 1997. Panetta is the son of Italian immigrants from Calabria, who later owned a restaurant in Monterey, California. As a child Leon often visited his father's hometown in Italy, where relatives still remember as studious and ambitious.
As one Italian cousin of Panetta's once said, ‟Quando Leon veniva in Calabria spesso stava da solo, preferiva studiare, si capiva che abrebbe fatto strada."
Panetta was educated at Catholic schools and received degrees in political science and law from Jesuit-run Santa Clara University. After service in the Army, he started his public career as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill. Panetta is married to the former Sylvia Marie Varni. They have three grown sons and five grandchildren.
On the occasion of his swearing in as Secretary of Defense, Panetta recalled his upbringing. ‟My parents, immigrants from Italy, came to the United States to seek a better life. They taught me that it was important to give something back to the country they adopted. I will never forget my father's words: ‛to be free, we must also be secure,'" Panetta concluded his comments by saying, ‟Rest assured that I will fight with you and for you."
Reprinted from Voce Italiana, July 2011.