JAMES CITY How did former Defense Secretary Robert Gates survive the Washington buzz saw while serving under eight U.S. presidents from both parties?
One way: With a "fairly irreverent" sense of humor that helped him to put problems in perspective and blow off steam. While visiting the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, "I was tempted to make a very undiplomatic gesture to the North Korean soldier" who stood glaring at U.S. officials through a window, Gates writes in his new best-selling book "Duty."
Not that the 70-year-old Gates, now the Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, is frivolous. Far from it. As defense chief under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama he wrote personal letters to the families of service members killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Gates drew strength from his troops. A photograph that hung on the wall outside his office made him burst out laughing with pride. It shows a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan firing his rifle against a surprise enemy attack "dressed in a helmet, body armor, flip-flops and pink boxer shorts with little red hearts in which were printed, "I Love New York.'"
In the book, Gates boasts that he is the only defense secretary ever to take an entire motorcade to eat at Burger King. Gates's penchant for bacon hamburgers and barbeque during flights on his official plane led the crew to nickname the aircraft "The Big Brisket."
Humor even influenced some serious decisions. Right after the killing of Osama bin Laden, a friend sent Gates a Photo-Shopped copy of the photo of U.S. leaders sitting in the White House Situation Room watching the raid as it unfolded in Pakistan. The officials were shown as superheroes, with President Obama dressed as Superman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as Wonder Woman and Gates as the Green Lantern.
Gates laughed. Then he realized that pictures of the dead bin Laden could be similarly altered and distributed worldwide, further inflaming tensions. He quickly moved to suppress all photos of the dead terrorist leader.
Gates's 617-page book is mostly about serious stuff, of course. Early reports that it was highly critical of President Obama were misleading. Gates does express disappointment that Obama didn't show more outward passion toward the mission in Afghanistan. But he praises the president for tough actions on the war and for his "courageous decision" to approve the risky raid that killed bin Laden. He even compares Obama's deliberative thought process to Abraham Lincoln.
Similarly, Gates was dismayed – or to use the words from the movie "Casablanca," shocked, shocked—when former political candidate Hillary Clinton openly stated that politics had influenced some of her Iraq views. But Gates goes on to say that after working with the Secretary of State, "I found her smart, idealistic, but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague and a superb representative of the United States."
Gates mostly praises President George W. Bush. But he had serious misgivings about Bush policies in Iraq and Afghanistan after taking over as defense secretary in 2006. After he stayed on as defense chief under President Obama, his clashes over the wars intensified with some White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden.
But Gates reserves his greatest contempt for the "crackpots" in Congress. "Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities … micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and reelction) before country—this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress. " (Tell us how you really feel, Mr. Secretary.) As usual, Gates found solace with humor. "It was always enjoyable to listen to three former senators – Obama, Biden and Clinton – trash-talking Congress," he writes.
Gates decries the rise of extreme partisanship and no-compromise ideologues whom he says have poisoned the process in Washington. A moderately conservative Republican, he argues that reasonable compromise isn't an evil but the grease that sustains responsible governing.
On several levels, Robert Gates's "Duty" is the voice of reason wrapped up in a book jacket.
James City resident Ron Shafer is the former Washington Political Features Editor at the Wall Street Journal.