California has had its share of towering leaders—-Governors Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, (who also became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), Ronald Reagan, and Governor Edmund G. Brown.

Senators William Knowland and Dianne Feinstein along with the first woman House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (both still serving) and the current head of state, Jerry Brown, could also make that list.

And I would put former Assembly Speaker for 15 years and S.F. Mayor, Willie L. Brown, Jr—who reinvented himself some years ago as a notable columnist in the S.F. Chronicle–on the list as well.

Another individual and non-elected Californian who makes the list and remains vigorous and active in public affairs at age, 97 is George T. Schultz.

Schultz is only one of two people in history to hold four cabinet positions serving on Pres. Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors and then as Secretary of Labor, Treasury and State under Presidents Nixon & Reagan.

It is a pantheon of ideological opposites who made their marks (and some still are) on history, albeit coming from inapposite places on the political spectrum.

A few have been long forgotten. The state’s last military governor and a forceful leader—Bennett Riley—held a constitutional convention in 1849, a year before California gained statehood which voted to outlaw slavery.

Though of opposing political stripes and different visions of how best to promote the betterment of society, these individuals shared one thing in common—a fierce commitment to public service with an equal dedication to upholding personal principle even at times in the face of strong criticism.

There is one other person, a native Californian who commands recognition—Leon Edward Panetta.

Panetta, who lives in Monterey where he is busy with wife, Sylvia, running the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, launched in 1997, has a resume second to none beginning his storied career as an aide to then Sec. of the Dept. of Health, Robert Finch in the Nixon Administration.

Following that he served as Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA (appointed to both by Barack Obama), Director of the Office of Management & Budget and Chief of Staff (both under William Clinton), and was a Member of the House (1976-93) where he chaired the Budget & Intelligence Committees.

Panetta and his wife will be honored with a Distinguished Citizens Award by the California Commonwealth Club at its Annual Gala on April 19th.

In an era when ethics has been devalued on a grand scale, Panetta is a shining beacon of the best among us.  I will let his own words speak for themselves:

“I’ve always felt that in a democracy governing is based on trust, and trust is based on telling the truth. When you don’t tell the truth, it’s undermining the trust that is basic to our democracy.”

One can only speculate if more people such as George Schultz and Leon Panetta were in power today—both heroes of another generation— one a Republican, the other a Democrat–would we have the turmoil that has become a steady diet in America?

These were leaders who, though holders of strong convictions, understood the need to seek centrist solutions that can bring warring factions together rather than driving them farther apart.

They understood that the settlement of our most difficult disputes must be conducted in an orderly and well-reasoned fashion, that love of country comes before loyalty to unprincipled demagogy and that blatant denial of all moral responsibility cannot be condoned.

Our history as an evolving nation shows we are much better than that.

The battles raging in Congress over tariffs, trade, taxes, immigration, gun control environmental regulations and much more are nothing new. But they have been accentuated by an Administration and a president blind to the lessons of history and what past leaders have taught about good governance.

The investigations now ongoing and not likely to end soon may result in the undoing of this Administration and the ousting of its leader.

The sensibility of the present two-party system is also under growing attack with more than casual rumblings that it may be time to be thinking about creating a third, independent party which could bring together the more extreme factions both Left and more so Right which are dominating.

However what is ultimately on trial today are two distinctly clashing views of how we choose to be governed, of what we value most as a democratic republic.

One endorses unrestrained authoritarian rule; the other a system favoring pluralism, tolerance, freedom and diversity. The two cannot co-exist for long without one giving way.

Californians regardless of political, religious, racial, ethnic or ideological coloration have from our beginnings preferred the latter.

The nation is being asked: Which will it be—constitutional democracy or autocracy?