Before there was Jack Ryan there was Robert Gates. To listen to Gates speak, as students had the opportunity to do last Wednesday, is to listen to an old record of your parents for the first time. It at once feels new yet foundational, a reminder that, as real and as visceral as our own times seem, there was a world before it, just as real.
Gates (76) bounded onto the stage Wednesday, and over the course of an hour related the myriad stories he had collected during his time in the administrations of eight presidents. While in the “deep state” as President Trump might say, Gates has been (a breath is advisable here) CIA Director, Deputy National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, interim dean at the Bush School and president of Texas A&M University (2002-2006). Incidentally, Gates served as CIA director under President H.W. Bush, the namesake of our school of government, and was National Security Adviser to Brent Scowcroft, the namesake of the Scowcroft Institute (which put on the event).
Undoubtedly some of Gates’ jokes were scripted — they had a polish that suggested practice — but it was refreshing to hear a public servant attempt to be both erudite and engaging instead of insulting. (Two words: Stephen Miller.)
“The four and a half years that I was president here,” Gates said jovially, “I’m gonna say with some confidence [were] the most fun times I’ve ever had. And it was certainly the most fun job I’ve ever had as far as my wife is concerned. [Because] she loved Texas A&M. And as you may or may not know, the children’s center here is named for her, with a statue of her out front… [S]he is the only woman in America that has a children’s center at a major university in America named after her and [is] also the sponsor of a nuclear attack submarine. She keeps trying to figure out how to bring those two things together.”
Fellas, get yourself a lady who can do both.
The CIA recruited Gates out of college to be an entry-level analyst. Twenty-five years later, Bush nominated Gates to be CIA director, making him the youngest in CIA history and the only to have climbed their way from an entry-level position. (This was not without controversy. Gates was appointed four years earlier by Ronald Reagan but withdrew due to suspicions he was more involved in the Iran-Contra Affair than he was letting on. There is little to suggest that he was. Still, the 31 votes cast against his eventually successful nomination under Bush was, at the time, the most resistance a nominee to the CIA director position had ever received.)
President Clinton tapped him to be on “an independent panel reviewing the possibility of missile threats to North America over the next 15 years.” President George W. Bush tapped Gates to be Secretary of Defense after Rumsfeld retired. And when President Obama asked him to stay on (despite push back from advisors), Gates accepted, making him the first Defense Secretary to carry over multiple administrations.
While Defense Secretary under the Obama Administration, Gates oversaw the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Somewhat controversially, he did so only after polling military service members, which to many seemed like voting on what should be a right. There is some truth to this. But there is also no denying that, when the polls came back largely in favor of opening up the military to LGBT service members, the results immeasurably bolstered the case for repeal. So while Gates may not get style points for the way the program was rolled down, there is something to be said for the fact that he pushed it over the finish line. It is an achievement that must be acknowledged because a) no matter how inevitable something may or may not seem, completing a task is always a challenge and b) Gates oversaw such a ban overturn twice. The first was for LGBT service members. The second was for gay scoutmasters while he was President of the Boy Scouts.
Gates told the group: “I am not asking the national board for any action to change our current policy at this [particular] meeting. But I must speak as plainly and bluntly to you as I spoke to presidents when I was director of CIA and secretary of defense. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.”
Again, no points for style. But hasn’t politics been overcome with an abundance of style over substance? Ideally, the two should always go hand-in-hand, but if forced to choose, for heaven’s sake, choose the substance.