Before he was a Democratic congressman, before he was director of the Office of Management and Budget, before he was White House chief of staff, and certainly before he was President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, Leon Panetta was director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare–the precursor to today’s Department of Health and Human Services. He was also a Republican.
Around the time he left HEW in 1970, Panetta may have been involved in leaking a secret White House document that caused a major embarrassment for the Nixon administration and had policy repercussions for decades. As Panetta prepares to begin his confirmation hearings for director of the CIA, an agency where politically generated leaks have reached an art form, it’s worth taking another look at the events surrounding the incident.
After the 1968 campaign, Nixon hired Pat Moynihan–who had served as assistant secretary of labor for policy in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations–as his urban-affairs adviser and all-around White House intellectual. Moynihan was already a somewhat controversial figure, having authored a report called “The Black Family: Then and Now,” which attributed the disproportionate poverty in the black community to rising illegitimacy. The liberal intelligentsia pilloried Moynihan for this conclusion, and he left the Department of Labor not long after his authorship of the report became public.
In the Nixon administration, Moynihan advised the president on developments in the intellectual world and wrote some very amusing memos about the excesses of the 1960s radicals (for more on this, see my book, Intellectuals and the American Presidency). However, Moynihan’s best-known memo to Nixon, written in January of 1970, laid out his thoughts on the state of the black community: “In quantifiable terms, which are reliable, the American Negro is making extraordinary progress.” Moynihan gave some statistics and issued four recommendations: the establishment of a White House conference to discuss black concerns, a de-escalation of racial rhetoric to allow for more progress, more research on the prevention of crime, and more attention and recognition for non-radical black leaders in order to marginalize the radicals.
The recommendations were not extreme, and are not shocking to read even today. Moynihan, however, used an infelicitous phrase to describe his proposed period of de-escalation: “benign neglect.” As was typical in the Moynihan memos, the phrase was of historical import, coming from the Earl of Durham’s 1839 report regarding Canadian self-government.
The memo was leaked to the press, and on March 1, the New York Times ran an article headlined “‘Benign Neglect’ on Race Is Proposed by Moynihan.” The White House was swamped with criticism from civil-rights leaders and editorial pages, and Moynihan had to hold a press conference to defend himself. Moynihan left the White House later that year, worried that this episode might harm his reputation within the Democratic party. He was right to be concerned. As recently as 1994, Al Sharpton referred to him as “Daniel Patrick ‘Benign Neglect’ Moynihan.” Other social scientists and politicians learned to speak gingerly on this issue, lest they be similarly tagged.
Moynihan suspected that a staffer at HEW had leaked the memo, and that HEW was responsible for leaking his authorship of the black family report five years earlier. (Decades later, Senator Moynihan would get some measure of revenge by having the Social Security Administration removed from HHS and made into an independent agency.) Although memos leak all the time, and the leakers are rarely identified, The New Republic’s John Osborne reported in a March 1970 profile of Moynihan that Leon Panetta was a prime suspect in the leak.
There was certainly some reason for the suspicion. In February, Panetta had resigned from HEW because he opposed the Nixon administration’s approach to desegregation. Panetta later went to work for New York mayor John Lindsay, switched parties, and successfully ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1976. The leaker has never been definitively identified.
By most accounts, Panetta is a decent and dedicated public servant. He is reputed to have reined in some of the excesses of the Clinton White House. But at the same time, leaking government documents is serious business, and should be unacceptable. Senators should ask Panetta, under oath, if he has ever leaked government documents to the press, and specifically ask about the Moynihan memo. It is a golden opportunity to solve a 39-year-old mystery, and to ascertain if a leaker is poised to serve in one of our nation’s most sensitive positions.
– Tevi Troy is the former deputy secretary of health and human services, and author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency.