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Nixon Had His Eye on Leon Panetta

Young Republican HEW Aide Critical of Nixon's Civil Rights Program

In 1971, a young Republican Leon Panetta worked in the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Panetta had actually come to Washington five years earlier, to work as an aide to Senator Thomas Kuchel (R-CA). Kuchel, ironically, held the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Senator Richard Nixon after Nixon was selected as General Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate in 1952.

At HEW, Panetta was a fairly high ranking aide, who reported directly to Secretary Robert Finch. Finch had known Nixon since the 1940s; he had previously served as Lieutenant Governor of California under newly elected California Governor Ronald W. Reagan, from 1967 until his appointment as Secretary of HEW in January 1969. While everything seemed to be going well for up and coming Republican aide Panetta, he would eventually have a break with the Nixon administration over its civil rights policies. Panetta quit HEW in 1970, but did not go quietly. 

President Nixon made a public statement on school desegregation on March 24, 1970. Panetta made his departure shortly before Nixon delivered the statement, thinking then that the timing for his departure was ideal. Panetta hoped that his departure would make a statement of its own, signaling to the public that there was some dissent within the administration over civil rights right at the very moment when Nixon attempted to explain his policy with respect to busing and school desegregation.

Then, in 1971, Panetta published a book, Bring Us Together, which was meant to be an insider's look at what he conceived of as Nixon's deeply flawed civil rights policies. The book was highly publicized, and certainly did not go unnoticed by the Nixon White House.

On May 27, 1971, President Nixon and domestic aide John Ehrlichman discussed Panetta's book in the Oval Office (949k, 1:00). Ehrlichman told Nixon that the book made HEW Secretary Finch look "bad" and "weak". Nixon and Ehrlichman noted that the book did not give any credit to the administration for its efforts towards civil rights reforms. Interestingly, while disagreeing with the content of the book, Ehrlichman told the president that he planned to have his entire staff read the book.

The following day, May 28, Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman also brought up Panetta's book to President Nixon (669k, 0:42) in the Oval Office. Nixon summarized that the book was "a case history on how to screw the White House" by taking advantage of a "soft" cabinet member, Robert Finch. Nixon had a concern that it would help to create a pattern whereby other potentially dissatisfied administration appointees could quit and then write a tell-all book that would embarrass the White House.

Finally, a few weeks later on June 14, in the immediate aftermath of the beginning of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times, Nixon and Haldeman again discussed Panetta's book in that context (592k, 0:37). To the president, Panetta's book represented a broader pattern of staff and government leaks. The conversation took place less than 24 hours after the first portions of the Pentagon Papers were published.



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