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To Washington and back: Gates returns to A&M

Former Aggie president delves into memoir

Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 00:01



Robert Gates, former A&M president and U.S. secretary of defense, speaks Tuesday.



Robert Gates, former A&M president and U.S. secretary of defense, speaks Tuesday at Rudder Auditorium.

Former Texas A&M President Robert Gates visited A&M on Tuesday, blending in to Aggieland again with a Blue Baker cup in his hand and a familiar greeting.

“Howdy,” Gates said. “I’ve been waiting a long time to say that — I wanted to open congressional hearings that way.”

Gates, former secretary of defense, spoke about his book, “Duty: A Memoir of a Secretary at War,” in Rudder Auditorium
Frederick McClure, CEO of the George Bush Presidential Foundation, introduced Gates, the first secretary of defense to serve under two presidents of different parties. In his career, McClure worked with Gates both at the White House and at Texas A&M.

For those who came to the event wanting to hear Gates speak about A&M, Gates did not disappoint. Gates spoke about the football program and said he has trouble watching Aggie football today because of the stress it caused him during his time as University president.

“Texas A&M football was a source of great stress for me,” Gates said. “I once turned to [my wife] and said ‘I’ve been the director of the CIA, why does Aggie Football cause me more anxiety?’ In her wisdom after many years of marriage, she said ‘Because you have no control.’”

Gates said the American troops were the reason he became secretary of defense after serving as president of A&M.

“Literally overnight, I went from campus seeing students walking around in T-shirts and flip-flops to seeing same-aged kids in uniform, putting their lives and dreams on hold to protect everyone on this campus and in this country,” Gates said.

His support of the military is what guided Gates through his four and a half years as secretary of defense, he said.

“As I look back, there is a parallel theme between my four and half years at war, and that is love,” Gates said. “I came to feel for the troops and the overwhelming sense of personal responsibility I developed for them. So much so that it would shape some of my most important and significant decisions.”

Gates said he was treated very well while acting as secretary of defense.

“Critical as I am now, I did like all those people,” Gates said. “Throughout those years, I was treated by both President Bush and President Obama with consistent generosity, trust and confidence. They gave me the opportunity and honor of a lifetime in serving as secretary. With only a few exceptions, members of Congress, both republican and democratic, were respectful and gracious to me, both publicly and privately.”

The book, along with discussing the actual conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, details his political struggles with Congress and in Washington.

“Despite everyone being nice to me, getting anything of consequence done in Washington was so damnable difficult even in the midst of the two wars,” Gates said. “From the bureaucratic inertia and complexity of the Pentagon to internal conflict within the [executive] branch, the partisan abyss in Congress over every issue from budgets to the wars, the single-minded, parochial self-interest of so many members of Congress and the magnetic pull exercised by the White House and the National Security Council staff especially in the Obama administration — all these made every issue a source of conflict and stress. I was more than happy to fight these fights, especially on behalf of the troops. “
Gates said he had observed the uncivil way members of Congress treated each other firsthand during his years as secretary.

“When the television camera is turned on in a hearing, it has the same effect on members of Congress as a full moon on werewolves,” Gates said.

Dan Wood, political science professor, said political party members in Washington have been using Gate’s book to further their own agendas.

“One thought is that there has been a partisan reaction to a book,” Wood said. “Republicans are extracting snippets to support their dislike for President Obama. Democrats are extracting snippets to support their president. I don’t think any of this is what Dr. Gates intended. He has even said so in various public settings.”

Gates was asked multiple times why he did not wait and publish the book after President Obama’s second term. Gates said the book discusses major themes and issues that he thinks are important in the present instead of in 2017, such as how to deal with the Middle East and civilian-military relations.

Wood said Gates has spent his career as part of the bureaucracy, especially in the area of national defense.

“The book suggests the natural conflict that will exist between a president and representatives of the bureaucracy,” Wood said. “Dr. Gates is a lifelong bureaucrat, having been recruited by the CIA at an early age, went to college at the behest of the CIA, rose through the ranks at the CIA to become its director, took a short hiatus to be TAMU president and then returned as a bureaucrat representing the Defense Department. As a lifelong bureaucrat, Dr. Gates promoted the interests of the national security bureaucracy. However, as president, Obama must represent broader interests, namely that of the American people. Much of the reputed conflict between Gates’ perspective and Obama’s perspective stems from this difference.”

Gates said while some of the issues in politics will not be changed tomorrow, political leaders can step up and be proactive in making the political system improve.

“Part of the way we got here is history, which cannot be changed quickly,” Gates said. “But what could make a difference starting tomorrow would be if all these people started treating each other better. If they could be civil to one another, listen to one another and recognize that the other person may have good ideas, if they would not demonize each other or distort facts, I think we could change the tone in Washington.”


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