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[Albert R. Hunt] Gates defies all odds with successful second act

There rarely are second acts, to borrow a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald, in American politics.

Larry Summers, lauded as President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, made a comeback to government two and half years ago as President Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser with expectations he would become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. Instead, he returned to Harvard University, his reputation not enhanced.

More striking was Donald Rumsfeld, a powerful figure in the Gerald Ford administration, including a stint as defense secretary, and an influential Republican national security voice for the next quarter century. Surprisingly, he came back to his old Cabinet job under President George W. Bush in 2001.

Five and half years later, Rumsfeld was forced out, an embarrassment to his party. You are unlikely to ever hear the current Republican presidential candidates invoke his name.

This history makes Robert Gates all the more remarkable. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George H.W. Bush, he was summoned by George W. Bush to succeed Rumsfeld, the Pentagon in disarray. He then acceded to Obama’s request to stay on.

He is retiring this week, highly respected by politicians of both parties, military officers and rank and file, and the public. His first act was good; the second act off the charts.

His stewardship hasn’t been during an easy time. He oversaw the surge in the Iraq War and the steady escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan. Partisanship has been pronounced in Washington the past five years.

Yet Gates somehow largely coped with the challenges, even rose above them. It’s hard to find a critic among politicians. Republican Senator Richard Lugar hails him as one of “America’s most brilliant public servants.” Democratic Senator Jack Reed praises him as “the ideal of a public servant ― great integrity, great intelligence, and total dedication to his country.”

At the Pentagon he has restored a mutual respect between civilians and the military that was deeply frayed under Rumsfeld, whose disdain for some flag officers was palpable.

“No one is more dedicated to those of us in uniform than Bob Gates,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a recent dinner for wounded veterans where the defense chief received a standing ovation.

“Bob Gates respects and understands the sacrifice soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are making, is humbled by what they do,” Reed says. “They know and appreciate that respect.”

Not since President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address has a top Washington official departed with more candor and credibility. Gates recently told America’s European allies that the six-decade-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization faces a “dim if not dismal future” due to their insistence that the U.S. carry a disproportionate share of the financial and military burden. And, in a reference to Iraq, and indirectly Libya, he raised doubts about “wars of choice.” The Iraq War “will always be clouded by how it began, which was a wrong premise,” he declared. “There were, in fact, no weapons of mass destruction.”

In the model of George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff in World War II and one of his predecessors as defense secretary, Gates is devoted to public service, and is himself a powerful reminder of its importance.

He isn’t a wordsmith, but some of his major speeches over the past few years capture his values and dedication. At Texas A & M University, where he served as president before returning to Washington, he worried that in facing the burdens of public life “too many young Americans, so public-minded in campus and community affairs, turn aside when it comes to our political process and to careers in public service.” He urged them to devote at least part of their lives to these callings.

At a Naval Academy commencement in May 2007, he spoke of the important roles of Congress and a free press in our democracy. With the often adversarial relations between the military and the news media as context, he cautioned that the press “is not the enemy, and to treat it as such is self- defeating.” He praised the role the Washington Post played in exposing mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital.

Last year, at Duke University, he challenged the comfortable and privileged to consider the chasm that separates them from those who serve in the all-volunteer military. “No war in our history,” he said, has been fought with fewer of its citizens ― less than 1 percent ― in uniform.

For all the success of the U.S. military, the defense chief worried about the “cultural, social and financial cost in terms of the relationship between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect.”

He urged elite college students to “go outside your comfort zone,” noting the military affords “the opportunity to be given extraordinary responsibility at a young age,” as their civilian peers “are reading spreadsheets and making photocopies.”

Too often in America, patriotism is superficial ― wearing a flag lapel or concluding speeches with “God Bless America.” Bob Gates is a real-deal patriot.

He’s being succeeded as defense secretary by another genuine patriot and high-class second act, Leon Panetta, former congressman, budget director, White House chief of staff, and most recently, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Even with those credentials Panetta has a tough act to follow. The man he replaces as Pentagon chief is fond of quoting John Adams’ admonition about the importance of “public business,” in a letter the Founding Father wrote to his son: “If wise men decline it, others will not. If honest men refuse it, others will not.”

Bob Gates, a wise and honest man, served. 

By Albert R. Hunt

Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.