MARINA, Calif. - Former U.S. Secretary of Defense and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta says George H.W. Bush was "probably the most decent President we've had. At least in my lifetime."
His relationship with Mr. Bush spanned five decades.
Panetta was the chair of the house budget committee during the Bush Administration, trying to pull the country out of recession. While their eventual budget agreement was a moment of bi-partisanship, Panetta tells KION the conversation started a few years earlier, after Bush’s inauguration.
“He said at the time, ‘look I made this pledge ‘read my lips, no new taxes.’ And I can’t just walk into
office and break it.’ But he says ‘why don’t we give it a few years’.”
And a few years later, in the budget agreement, he broke the taxes pledge. Panetta credits that as a politically risky move, a selfless move, that helped save the economy.
Panetta eventually became President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. Clinton defeated Bush in the 1992 election. But Mr. Bush, showing grace despite defeat, famously left a letter for Clinton in the Oval Office. A letter Clinton immediately mentioned to then-Congressman Panetta.
“The President, I remember him pulling me aside and said 'I got a wonderful note from President Bush that was left in the Oval Office’,” Panetta says. “It really reflected the decency of President Bush and his willingness to say ‘I know you’re you know you're facing a tough job and I wish you the best and I support you as President of the United States’.”
Below a picture of Mr. Bush and Secretary Panetta, shown prominently in the Panetta Institute for Public Policy office, is a message from the 41st President. It reads “that bi-partisan grasp feels ok.”
We asked Secretary Panetta is that level of bi-partisanship is still possible.
“I’m not sure that leadership is there now to make it happen. I wish it was," Panetta says. “I think it’s probably going to take a change in the membership of Congress. Younger members who really care about governing the country.”
Panetta and Bush are also both former CIA Directors. Panetta says the Bush family invited all former Directors to Thursday's funeral, and he plans to attend.
President George H.W. Bush died last Friday at the age of 94.