WASHINGTON — Leon Panetta will stand out at the Pentagon, whatever wars may come.
Born to Italian parents 72 years ago on the California coast, Panetta would start off as the nation's second-oldest defense secretary. He brings far more congressional experience than most, after representing the Monterey, Calif. area in the House of Representatives for 16 years. He would be the only Pentagon chief to have led both the budget and intelligence agencies.
"He's the classic immigrant success story," said Barry Toiv, who worked for Panetta for nearly 20 years.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama is scheduled to cap Panetta's remarkable career by nominating the one-time Army lieutenant as defense secretary, replacing the retiring Pentagon chief Robert Gates.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Panetta is almost certain to win easy confirmation on Capitol Hill, where he served in the House between 1977 and 1993 and where some of his former aides still hold key positions.
"I am a creature of the Congress, and proud of it," Panetta told the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence during his 2009 confirmation hearing. In fact, he first came to Washington in 1966 as an aide to Republican Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kuchel of California. He became a Democrat in 1971 after serving in several senior positions in the Nixon administration.
The Santa Clara University graduate is still informal enough to be universally known as Leon, the sort of man who doesn't seem to make lasting enemies. Inevitably, people call him down-to-earth.
It's easy to see him as the son of Carmelo and Carmelina Panetta, who ran a cafe and then a walnut ranch that remains in the family. Panetta himself is the father of three — his youngest son has served as a Navy intelligence officer — and grandfather of five.
Even his career has been a family affair. Sylvia Panetta, his wife of nearly 50 years, formerly ran his California congressional district office. She now serves as the head of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, a study center the couple founded at California State University, Monterey Bay.
"Leon is the right guy for the times," said former Sacramento-area congressman Vic Fazio, who has known Panetta since the late 1970s. "He's sunny, and he's upbeat, and he's very serious about policy."
Still, for all his paterfamilias' ease, Panetta can in-fight and out-maneuver with the best of them, as he's occasionally shown while serving as Obama's CIA director.
In late 2009, for instance, Panetta and then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair clashed over Blair's efforts to gain more say over overseas intelligence work. Put bluntly, it was a classic turf war, and Panetta won it hands-down. Blair is gone.
On Capitol Hill, too, Panetta knew how to work the system. He strolled easily to re-election every two years, though his colleagues recall that he seemed lukewarm about the nitty-gritty of raising campaign cash.
He fit his congressional district, which made him hard to compartmentalize. For the environmentalists, Panetta fought off-shore oil drilling. For agribusiness, he pushed for seasonal guest-workers and crop subsidies. Within the Democratic caucus, he won through internal politicking the key spot of House Budget Committee chairman.
It was Panetta's budget committee tenure, in turn, which enabled him to leave a safe House seat and become head of the Clinton administration's Office of Management and Budget in 1993.
"He was credible as a budgeter," Fazio recalled. "He was seen as balanced and as a centrist."
Then in 1994 he became Clinton's White House chief of staff, and was hailed for bringing orderly discipline to a once-chaotic operation.
Away from Capitol Hill, during the period between leaving the Clinton administration in 1997 and joining the Obama administration in 2009, Panetta showed he could leverage his reputation.
The bipartisan study center he founded with his wife in 1997 sponsors lectures and internships. It reported total revenues of $1.6 million in 2009, primarily from grants and contributions from unspecified donors, according to its most recently available IRS reports
Panetta himself profited immensely from speaking and director's fees while out of public office, according to the financial disclosure statement he filed with the Senate. In October 2008, for instance, Wachovia and Merrill Lynch both paid him $28,000 for speeches, while the Fleishman Hillard public relations firm paid him a $120,000 director's fee, according to his disclosure statement.
Crucially, for the revival of his own place on the national stage, Panetta also stayed in close touch with political currents while in Monterey. Some talked him up as a California gubernatorial candidate during a 2003 recall drama; political operatives speculated he'd want the job but not the race that was required to get it.
And when wise men have been needed for national commissions, such as the 2006 Iraq Study Group, Panetta has always seemed a natural choice.
"He really does have an ethic of service," said Toiv, Panetta's long-time spokesman who is now vice president with the Association of American Universities. "He feels he has a responsibility to the country."
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it another way.
"There's a pattern there," the official said. "When presidents have asked him to take up roles he's done that."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY