Nixon Had His Eye on Leon
Young Republican HEW Aide
Critical of Nixon's Civil Rights Program
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
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.
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.