MORAGA -- During a stirring commencement address Saturday, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta exhorted Saint Mary's College graduates to summon the will to fight to protect American democracy.
Lamenting what he described as a lack of courage to govern in Congress exemplified by the failure to pass fair and just immigration reform, promote income equality and develop a sound energy policy, Panetta said fundamental change in our democracy will come from the bottom up, not the top down.
"Your degree and your education is a license to action, not an excuse to sit back and do nothing," he told the graduates.
Panetta delivered the keynote speech before an exuberant crowd of family and friends gathered at the football stadium to celebrate Saint Mary's largest graduating class of more than 750 students.
The son of Italian immigrants, Panetta grew up in Monterey, where he worked in his family's restaurant and walnut orchard before graduating from Santa Clara University. He served as an Army officer, congressman and as chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton. Panetta was Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency during President Barack Obama's first term. He retired in February 2013 and is currently chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at Cal State Monterey Bay.
"Frankly, I'm worried about the state of our democracy today. Washington is paralyzed by political gridlock and division," he said, adding that there's a growing sense that some elected leaders want to withdraw from the world and only look inward.
Panetta drew a stark contrast between the two paths he believes lie before the country -- an "America in renaissance" dedicated to economic recovery, rebuilding the middle class, securing energy independence, fighting climate change and expanding trade; or an "America in decline" where political dysfunction rules the day and elected leaders are unable to govern.
"The fundamental strength of America doesn't lie in Washington, it lies in the spirit and strength and resilience and common sense and grit of the American people," he said.
Las Vegas native Kaitlin Kellogg, 22, who earned a bachelor's degree in communication, said the next step on her road to the Oval Office is earning a law degree. She was excited to hear Panetta speak.
"I am so thrilled that he could be here today. It's such an honor to see someone of such stature in the U.S. government come and inspire us with his words," Kellogg said. Citing the credo that guides the Saint Mary's community, "Enter to learn, leave to serve" Kellogg added, "Mr. Panetta has done that. He has served his country, so it's very fitting that he's here today."
Ward Farris traveled from Tracy to see his daughter Briana, who graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in communication.
"We watched her mature, we watched her go through the process, and it's gratifying to watch her get to this point where she's actually completing," Farris said.
Briana Farris, 22, will attend the University of San Francisco in the fall to pursue a master's degree in sports management. She wants to work in the front office of a professional sports team -- preferably basketball, the sport her dad coaches.
"It was a great four years, the teachers were supportive, my family was supportive," said Briana Farris, who fell in love with Saint Mary's during visits to her brother's basketball camps.
Contact Lisa P. White at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.