By Leon E. Panetta
Power Shift is part of the great American story of the struggle for equality in our democracy, a rich and layered account that resonates with moments in my own life. Many familiar with my service in the Clinton and Obama administrations may not know I was born to immigrant parents in Depression-era California, that I was a first-generation college student, or that I served in Congress for years alongside fellow Representatives Edward Roybal and Esteban Torres of Southern California. The rise of Latino leaders such as these former colleagues of mine and others are captured in this book by my old friend George Pla and his co-author David Ayón. Together they have woven a rare and sensitively human narrative on the shaping and exercise of leadership, and on these leaders’ contributions to advancing democracy and access to the American Dream — advances I witnessed, experienced, and devoted much of my career to as well.
Like these and other leaders whose “origin stories” are told between these covers, as a child, my bilingual Catholic family was my world. Reading how Esteban Torres’s father was deported to Mexico in the 1930s, I could not help but recall my Nono, as Italian children call their grandpa. He was visiting us in Monterey when World War II broke out in Europe and kept him from returning home to Italy. With my parents working hard every day, Nono became my constant companion. But my world changed when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the war to America. I had not turned four when Nono became one of some ten thousand Italian “enemy aliens” ordered to relocate further inland.
Italian Americans were largely spared the mass repatriation that Mexican Americans experienced during the Depression — not to mention the wholesale internment of Japanese Americans in camps during WWII — yet my grandfather’s forced separation from our family was also a shameful instance of treatment, not as an individual based on his merits but as a category based on background. Nevertheless, it pleases me, as a former Secretary of Defense, to be able to say that Esteban Torres, Ed Roybal, and I all went on from our California childhoods to serve our country in the US Army, an essential step on our respective paths
to careers in politics.
My first job after the military took me to Washington, as an aide to California Senator Tom Kuchel, a centrist Republican and a champion of civil rights. I, too, was a Republican in those days, when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed with strong bipartisan backing. The senator put me to work on civil rights, budget, and environmental issues. Working with other staff, I helped coordinate support for the Fair Housing Act in the fateful year of 1968. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, we saw Washington and other cities burn.
Targeted by the far-right, Sen. Kuchel got “primaried” that year. We watched the returns together in Los Angeles and learned that his political career was ending — and then the shocking news that Sen. Robert Kennedy had been shot. That fall, in spite of mental reservations, I accepted an invitation to join a transition team for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare of the incoming Nixon administration, and then some months later the offer to head HEW’s Office of Civil Rights. My legal duty was to compel the desegregation of public schools, district by district, and I expanded our focus to address segregation and discriminatory treatment of Mexican-American students in the Southwest. Nixon’s men came to see me as a “bloodthirsty integrationist,” and the president had me fired. I wrote a book about the administration’s retreat from civil-rights enforcement and left the Republican Party, which was also moving away from its historic support for civil rights.
Ed Roybal’s family was at one time Republican as well, but he, too, changed parties out of substantive policy differences. When I got to Congress in 1977, Roybal was starting his eighth term as the only Latino representative from California. But as Power Shift vividly recounts, Ed was in the forefront of policy reforms for educational equity, voting rights, and the coming 1980 census. In the years that followed, I came to know George, who was in Governor Jerry Brown’s cabinet back in California. His range of experience, from the grassroots level in East LA to state government in Sacramento to managing Esteban Torres’s campaign for Congress in 1982, and much more in the ensuing years, uniquely prepared George to join forces with scholar David Ayón to write this deeply researched and elegantly written account of the long Latino quest for inclusion.
Each generation has had to fight to prove the pledge of our forefathers that we are all “created equal.” As the son of Italian immigrants, I was able to live the American dream. But as this book shows, that dream is not a gift, it is a struggle. Power Shift presents the journey of 10 groundbreaking Latino leaders who made that struggle, transformed politics, and gave their people a chance to live the American dream.
Leon E. Panetta served as Secretary of Defense and CIA Director under President Barack Obama, experiences he recounts (with Jim Newton) in Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace. He directed the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1969–70, which formed the basis of his book (with Peter Gall), Bring Us Together: The Nixon Team and the Civil Rights Retreat, and was nine times elected to Congress from 1976–92. He left Congress in 1993 to direct the Office of Management and Budget, and then served as Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton.