Tonya Strickland

With around 500 people in attendance, Cal Poly began its “Provocative Prospectives” series with Leon Panetta, former congressman and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Panetta drew a crowd so large the venue had to be changed from Vista Grande Cafe to Spanos Theater Friday.

Speaking on “leadership and contemporary issues,” Panetta’s criticism of the political leadership abilities in today’s national public service sector rallied the audience into two standing ovations at the top and bottom of the hour.

“We are all taught some basic values and some basic ethics that in many ways determine the quality of our government and leadership,” he said.

Regarding reaction crisis, healthcare, Iraq and global economy, Panetta stressed that quality is not being met.

The holes in today’s leadership, he said, can most recently be seen in Homeland Security’s sluggish reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

“Whether it’s a natural disaster or a man-made disaster, we are supposed to be prepared, ” Panetta said. “And yet there was a failure at every level . . . we saw an area of this country become a Third World.”

Becca Swanson, ASI chief of staff and a psychology senior, said that Panetta’s conceptual approaches on current leadership in today’s society were well structured.

“He connected (the issues) to many aspects in one’s own life and even brought it back to the government’s response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” she said.

Panetta said he recently asked a group of students what they were most concerned about, and the answer scared him. They told him that this country is not as strong as it once was.

“What they said was, ‘We’re probably the first generation that will not have a better world to live in, in terms of the future,’” Panetta said. “I thought that was a hell of a comment. They’re concerned that the United States might not be a world leader.”

Swanson said this specific comment was a significant concept for today’s Americans to sit down and think about, as some people in the audience told her they too, identified with his encounter.

“He brought up the idea that this is the first generation where we’re not going to be living in a better place than our parents,” Swanson said. “This touched me and many others.”

With several issues placed on the back burner as the nation’s leaders bicker back and forth, Panetta said the United States is governed more by crisis than by leadership today.

“Make no mistake about it, if leadership is not there, then crisis drives policy,” Panetta said.

From the gas crisis in the 1980s to today’s loose grip on healthcare, Panetta said this trend continues to occur with several issues serving as examples.

There are 46 million people in the United States today that do not have health insurance due to “exploding costs” of health premiums that many families cannot afford and that employers can’t afford to provide, he said.

“And yet instead of people coming together and recognizing that they have to sit down and deal with the situation, they sit back and allow the crisis to continue to develop,” he said.

With much criticism and only some light shed on possible solutions, Panetta’s speech began with an endorsement for student participation and interest in public service, and the founding of The Panetta Institute in 1998 located at California State University, Monterey Bay.

Elected for nine congressional terms, Panetta said he loved serving those living on the Central Coast. His district spanned from Santa Cruz to Santa Maria. When asked by a supporter in the audience whether he would put his positive attitude back into the political system by running again for public office, Panetta said it’s possible.

“That’s neither a yes or a no,” he said.

While Panetta may or may not be setting grounds for change in public office, he said that he and his wife Sylvia now serve the entire CSU system with the institute. Through their master’s program designed to help equip those student leaders interested in public service, American youth can prepare for the future of this country, he said.

Swanson, who has participated with the Women’s Center and now for ASI, said Panetta’s urgent attitude toward youth leadership hit home.

“I felt very inspired,” she said. “I realized that there are many levels of work to be done in the public sphere and Leon Panetta has done it all – and (that) makes you feel that public service is the best way to give back and fight for a better living environment for the next generation.”

“High education is crucial to protecting the strength in our democracy,” Panetta said.

The next speaker in the Provocative Perspectives series will be Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, syndicated columnist and author of “Mexifornia: A State of Becoming,” according to a news release. Hansen will examine immigration issues in his speech on campus Dec. 1.

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