It’s hard to think of a Cabinet secretary — or a public servant, for that matter — as well-respected as Robert Gates, who retires today after 4½ years as defense secretary and four decades of service to eight presidents. He has done his country and his hometown of Wichita proud.
As defense secretary to Presidents Bush and Obama, Gates was served by comparisons with his abrasive predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, whose wrongheaded decisions fueled problems in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Gates also stood out for his judgment and pragmatism, as well as his willingness to hold people accountable (and fire them, if necessary), do what needed to be done (such as trim more than $300 billion from the defense budget) and say what needed to be said (including, at West Point in February, that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as Gen. MacArthur so delicately put it”).
The self-described “old Cold Warrior” can claim a big share of the credit for the successes of the 2007 surge of troops in Iraq, the 2010 surge of troops in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Perhaps as remarkably, during a time of poisonous partisanship and blinding ideology in Washington, Gates managed to do an outstanding job for two polar-opposite presidents. No surprise then that his few critics inhabit the far right and far left.
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Characteristically, his final thoughts before turning the job over to Leon Panetta have been about the troops. Gates’ farewell statement this week described the task of serving and leading them as “the greatest honor” of his life.
For all his world travels, the 67-year-old Wichita native, Eagle Scout and 1961 graduate of East High School still seems rooted in the state that his family has called home for more than a century and Gates has called “a place of little pretense and ample common sense.”
Speaking to East High graduates two years ago, Gates said: “I believe a Kansas upbringing imparts qualities that have been a source of strength for me over the years: an enduring optimism and idealism, a love of country, and dedication to citizenship and service.”
He continued: “In many ways, for all the places I have gone, the jobs I have held, and all the notable people I have worked with and met, I will always consider myself first and foremost just a kid from Kansas who got lucky.”
In truth, any luck involved was the nation’s, for having had Gates to rely on all these years.