Skip to Content (Press Enter)

Leon Panetta Speaks on ‘Challenges of Leadership in Democracy’

Cal State Fullerton Hosts 'We Stand Together' Virtual Event
Share This:

Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense, CIA director and White House chief of staff, recently spoke on “Challenges of Leadership in Democracy” as part of the inaugural “We Stand Together” speaker series.

President Fram Virjee, along with presidents and chancellors of public higher education institutions from across the nation, are standing together to call out and eradicate discrimination and racism. Virjee has taken a leading role in working with these leaders who are, to quote the “We Stand Together” video, from “vastly different universities; some large and in the heart of densely populated urban areas, others small and in the isolation of America’s farmland; some historically Black colleges and universities, others Hispanic- and Native American- Serving Institutions; some incredibly diverse and multicultural, others more racially and ethnically homogenous.” He welcomed Panetta by describing him as one of his personal heroes.

“Our goal was simple,” said Virjee. “Find national leaders who are so authentic, so respected and so courageous that their message of hope and justice cuts through all divisive and hateful rhetoric spewing across our country. Leaders who seek to unite rather than divide. Leaders who put country before party. In short, leaders like Leon Panetta. President Barack Obama said of Leon, ‘He is one of the finest public servants we have ever had who brings extraordinary management skills, great political savvy and an impeccable record of integrity.'”

Understanding the Importance of Education
“It is a tribute to this cohort of university presidents and those listening that you understand the important role you play in ensuring our democracy survives,” Panetta said. “You are educating the citizens who will bear the responsibility for the future of democracy.”

For almost 24 years, the Panetta Institute for Public Policy that Panetta developed alongside his wife, Sylvia, has tried to inspire young people to consider lives of public service, emphasizing that they have a duty to give back to “our great country.”

“We live in a strange and uncertain time,” he said. “It seems like I’m spending my life on Zoom. Students are, too. But this is the world of the future. Educators are securing the American Dream … but that dream is in danger. 

“We are experiencing some of the worse crises since World War II. We are in the middle of a pandemic with almost 230,000 lives lost … and it’s going to be with us, probably well into next year. Our economy has been impacted by the pandemic. We are experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression — millions out of work, small businesses closing, a stock marketing that’s unstable. And there are issues of racial inequality. We claim that all are created equal but we have yet to deliver on that promise.

“We have a leadership crisis in America and in our democracy. We look to our elected officials and see a tremendous amount of dysfunction … in both parties. We need to recognize that we are all Americans who love and care for our country … and we’re worried about that American dream.”

In a Panetta Institute poll of college students, 80% believed that COVID-19 has had a major impact on their lives. They worry about pursuing educational goals, careers, being able to live the American dream.

The American Dream
“I know that concern because I’ve lived the American dream,” Panetta said. “I am the son of Italian immigrants. My parents came to America like millions of others — with little money and few language skills, and this impacted their ability to understand what the country was all about. My dad ended up opening a restaurant in Monterey and they worked hard and sacrificed. Later they planted a walnut orchard. I remember as a child washing dishes in the restaurant and working in the walnut orchard. We were taught that dreams are just dreams unless you’re willing to work for them. Roll up your sleeves, work hard, sacrifice and take risks — make those dreams come true.

“We are blessed in this country, but it doesn’t mean a thing unless we’re willing to fight for it. I look at the values I was raised with and I think the future of our country depends on those values.”

Leadership at a Crossroads
“We are at a crossroads right now,” Panetta continued. “We could be an America in renaissance — we have tremendous innovation, creativity, cutting technology. That technology is going to give us even greater opportunities to grow as a society.

“We can provide world leadership in a dangerous world if Democrats and Republicans can work together. We have a responsibility to be world leaders. I think we can be that kind of America.

“The other path is America in decline,” he warned. “If we are divided by fear, prejudices, anger … if we continue to be polarized, can’t talk to each other or govern, mark my words: We will go the way of past empires. Look at the history of world powers — they became complacent, had few statesmen to guide them, became immersed in the false premise that they’d survive no matter what. But ultimately, they came to an end.

“Leadership decides what path we take. In a democracy, we govern by leadership or crisis. You cannot be a strong leader if you don’t take risks. A strong leader will avoid the crises. But if that leadership isn’t there, you govern by crisis. That’s what’s happening today.

“It’s easier to wait for crisis — you don’t have to offend, raise taxes, cut spending … you can govern that way until the crisis becomes overwhelming. If you do not address the crisis, there’s a price to be paid and that price is you’ll lose the trust of the American people. To a large extent, we’ve lost that trust.”

Working Together
“I’ve seen Washington, D.C., at its best and its worst,” Panetta said. “Republicans and Democrats had their political differences but they worked together and passed landmark legislation. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Now, however, the parties have become further divided and unable to deal with major issues. We know what the problems are but we’re not willing to come together. We need to trust, listen to each other, and find consensus.”

Panetta noted that there is a great deal to be done to address the issues of immigration reform, providing aid to the millions of unemployed and health care reform.

“What we have is basically failed leadership,” he said. 

Leadership on a Global Stage
“We live in a dangerous world,” Panetta continued. “This is no time for us to withdraw from that leadership role and we can’t escape the problems of the world. Terrorists continue to organize. They are resilient and want to attack our country. Failed states in the Middle East are breeding grounds for terrorists. Our relationship with Iran has grown more tenuous. There is no agreement on denuclearization. Same with North Korea. Russia, sensing weakness, is invading Ukraine, Syria … and has attacked our election system. Although we have economic relationships with China, they are also a threat.

“And don’t forget cyber threats,” he added. “This is the battlefield of the future. You don’t need an army. You can use a computer virus that has the potential to paralyze our country.

“We need leadership to deal with all these threats and we need allies to help us.”

Hope for the Future
“I could never have been in politics if I wasn’t optimistic about the future,” he said. “We’ve been through crisis after crisis in our country, and our leaders have always risen to the occasion. 

“The real strength of our country is in the American people — in our common sense, spirit, resilience, love of country and family, love of what’s right and decent.

“As CIA director, secretary of defense and a member of Congress, I’ve gone to numerous battlefields and looked into the eyes of men and women in uniform. They are willing to fight and die for their country. They have an inner courage. If they have it, why can’t our elected leaders take a little of that courage and fight for our country?”

Addressing the university presidents, he added, “We have a responsibility to make sure our country lives up to its values. I think because of that, because of what all of you are doing and the leadership you are showing, we will have an American renaissance, protect the American dream and protect our government of the people, by the people for the people.”

Contact: Valerie Orleans,