Leon Panetta Discusses Integrity in Public Service, Political Climate


Former U.S. Secretary of Defense and Chief of Staff under the Clinton Administration Leon Panetta speaks to the Colgate community in the Chapel.

Colgate continued their year-long Bicentennial Celebration this past Friday night by welcoming former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to campus. Panetta’s talk headlined a weekend-long celebration of Colgate leadership.

President Casey introduced Panetta’s talk by thanking the Global Leaders Series, an initiative started in 2007, for bringing Panetta to campus. Casey then introduced Assistant Professor of Political Science Danielle Lupton, who detailed Panetta’s extensive list of credentials and experiences.

Some of Panetta’s most standout titles include Chief of Staff under the Clinton Administration, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, eight-time reelected member to the US House of Representatives for California’s 20th district and recent cofounder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. He has spent 50 years committed to public service, and served in the military from 1964 to 1966.

Panetta first engaged the audience with his knowledge of Colgate tradition, claiming that he had never heard of a place that glorifies the number 13 for luck but that Colgate’s recent performance in the NCAA Basketball tournament proves that our commitment to the number 13 is evidently beneficial.

Panetta then made a connection between Colgate’s core values and the values that have remained integral to his career in public service.

“I pride Colgate for your emphasis on honesty, your ability to listen and read well, to think critically and creatively, ask challenging questions, gather information, take stands for your beliefs, to take accountability for your actions, focus on ethical behavior, respect for diversity of life and continual growth in knowledge and wisdom,” Panetta said. 

These values framed the rest of the talk, as Panetta shared anecdotal experiences that demonstrated their importance to his own life and in Washington.

Panetta also shared his own personal opinion on the current political climate. He said that he believes that we are living in “the midst of threats” in regards to fake news, security concerns, economic consternation and a general air of interpersonal hostility.

“I am unsure if we should dismiss this chaos as ‘politics of the day’ or worry if this will undermine our democracy,” Panetta said. “I believe that the U.S. could go in one of two directions, one path could be America in Renaissance in the 21st century or America in decline.”

Panetta described both of these outcomes, glorifying the traits that have allowed for American success in the past while suggesting that an “America in decline” is one marked by constant chaos, crisis, political gridlock, division by hate, fear and prejudice and a failure to protect basic freedoms, security and the economy.

In addition, Panetta expressed concern about America’s role in modern day global contentions. He specifically cited terrorism, North Korean summits, Russian cyber warfare, China’s growing military strength and Venezuelan political violence as some of the most imminent threats facing the U.S. today.

Despite these harrowing images, Panetta offered the hope that with the correct leadership, one that acts on the offensive as opposed to the defensive against crisis, he has faith that we can reclaim a utopic America in the future.

Panetta concluded his speech with all the things he believes will make America successful. He belabored the critical necessity of education, taking risks and caring for one another. He credits education as one of, if not the most important keystone to upholding democracy in our nation.

“I believe in the importance of education. Education is what fulfills the promise. It makes equality and opportunity possible in the U.S. Education is what allows us to understand the world around us and is what gives us a chance at meaningful life,” Panetta said.

The final message Panetta left the audience with was one that glorified the American public for their spirit of caring, something that he has witnessed firsthand throughout his career.

“Survive everyday because we care about one another,” Panetta said.

Panetta said he saw this when he served as Secretary of Defense, describing the overwhelming emotion experienced when looking in the eyes of Navy Seals who were deployed with the mission of finding and killing Osama Bin Laden.

Panetta closed by crediting the strength of America. He said he believes that our historical ability to recover following tragedy and to rise to the occasion represents a spirit and resilience specific to this country that will propel us into the next decade.

Contact Hanna Murphy at [email protected]