CIA Chief Leon Panetta's Nutty Background

Dodging nuts helped prepare him for life in Washington.

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At a time when he's got the most secretive job in his 34 years of public service, CIA Director Leon Panetta is cracking the shell on his family's roots. Specifically, he reveals how his Italian immigrant parents made it all the way to California's fruit and nut basket in Monterey. He told his story recently to a convention of Asian-American professionals in San Francisco, not too far from the Panetta walnut farm.

"My parents were immigrants who managed to make their way, like millions of others, to this country," he said. When his parents arrived in the 1930s, his dad had two brothers to visit—one in Wyoming, the other in California. His parents had spent a winter in Wyoming when his mother suggested that it was time to visit the brother in California. "That's what ultimately brought them, thankfully, to Monterey," Panetta said.

In Monterey, they opened a restaurant, and Panetta's earliest recollections were of washing glasses there as a boy. "My parents believed that child labor was a requirement in our family," Panetta said. "So we worked there, and then my father sold the restaurant after the war and bought a place in Carmel Valley, a farm, and planted walnut trees."

Little did he know that his farm work would pave the way to a successful career in Washington, first as a California congressman, then as chief of staff to President Clinton.

"I'll tell you an interesting story," he told the conventiongoers, tying his work on the farm to his reputation as a skilled and jovial Washington insider. "In those days, in order to get the crop, you had to go around with a pole and hook and shake each of the branches, and then you collect the walnuts underneath the tree. And so my father would go around with the pole and the hook and hit the branches. My brother and I used to be underneath, picking up the walnuts," Panetta explained, working up to the punch line. "When I got elected to Congress, my father said, 'You know, you've been well-trained to go to Washington. You've been dodging nuts all your life.' " Panetta still owns his family's walnut farm.

Panetta isn't the only recent CIA director who gets his hands dirty. Porter Goss, a former congressman and CIA director under George W. Bush, raises lamb, grows fruits and veggies, and jars jam on his Virginia farm. A CIA insider noted, "CIA has had as directors: soldiers, sailors, lawyers, politicians, and more. Langley used to be a peach orchard, so a farmer or two shouldn't surprise anybody."

Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.

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