Beltway politicians and media people don’t read books the way most of us do. Politicians do “the Washington read,” going instantly to the index to see if they or their causes are listed and leaping to those pages. Media people do the “gotcha read,” in which they flash through looking for juicy passages.
“Duty,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ memoir of his service in eight presidential administrations, is heavily focused on his years under George W. Bush and President Obama. Both the release last week of the book and the Washington-style readings of it are a disservice to some of the people involved, including Gates, and, more important, to future presidents.
The political and journalistic exploitation of selective bits of “Duty” is misleading. It is an evenhanded, thoughtful critique of people and events and, long term, will be useful. But by publishing it while one of the presidents he served is still in office, Gates crosses a line that should not be crossed by Cabinet-level people.
He describes affectingly the scalding cauldron of the highest levels of government. As have decades of predecessor memoirists, he finds the work grueling, the satisfaction of success often denied, the human frailties distressing, the rift between military and civilian leaders deep, the disagreements within departments rife, principle often yielding to expediency, and White House staffs hard-nosed and unremittingly political. Such is the enduring reality.
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Last week he said he was “disappointed” that slices of the book have been “hijacked” out of context for political and media exploitation. But how can a man with his background not have known that would happen? How could he not have understood that “the Washington read” and “the gotcha read” would ignite the furor that he now disowns?
Such books are inevitable, and the nation often benefits from them. But the honorable protocol that private conversations, especially at the highest levels, should forever stay private dissolved a long time ago in the acid of political and financial expediency. And when the revealed conversations involve ongoing matters of national security and foreign relations, such as the Afghanistan war, a dangerous precedent is established.
During his decades in government, Gates earned a reputation as a reliable, effective manager whose sense of duty to the nation’s welfare, as he frequently tells us, compelled him to accept responsibilities he did not seek or enjoy, as he did when Obama asked him to stay on post-Bush in the midst of two wars. So it is puzzling that the avowed sense of national obligation did not also compel him to wait until 2017 to try to establish his place in history.
Releasing the book now raises some serious questions:
• Has he ensured that future presidents must insulate and limit themselves even more by being candid only with absolute loyalists?
• How can a president usefully debate and interact with Cabinet members if the details may appear in print while that president remains in office?
• Will future transitional presidents hesitate to take similar advantage of effective holdover leaders regardless of party and thus forgo both their expertise and differing views?
• If he had waited until 2017 and not diminished his legacy, could he have landed a two-book contract, with the second about leadership?