Former Secretary of Defense offers perspectives from decades of service
Thursday, November 14, 2013
As he greeted a full house in Symphony Hall Wednesday night, Gates set the stage for an evening of serious reflection on national affairs, interspersed with humorous observations from a long career in public service that has included working under eight U.S. presidents, serving as Director of the CIA, and leading two universities.
“It’s good to be back in Boston, but then again, it’s good to be anywhere other than Washington these days,” jibed Gates at the start of his talk. He continued, “Washington is a place where so many people are lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory.”
Gates, the first Secretary of Defense to have served two presidents of different political parties, was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006, and served under President Barack Obama until 2011.
Gates said he set out to become a history professor, but his trajectory changed when he met a Central Intelligence Agency recruiter at a job fair in 1966. He spent nearly 27 years as an intelligence professional, rising through the ranks of the CIA to become its director in 1991. He has also served as president of Texas A&M University and chancellor of the College of William and Mary, his alma mater.
“Of all of the positions I’ve held, being Secretary of Defense was the greatest honor of my life,” he reflected.
He covered sweeping ground during his appearance, sharing experiences from the White House Situation Room and stories about strange and exotic meals with world leaders. He weighed in on everything from terrorism and nuclear weapons to the eccentricities, foibles and accomplishments of all the presidents he served.
“Richard Nixon was probably our strangest president: a career politician who was a loner and hated mingling with people,” said Gates, adding that Nixon wandered the White House drunk some nights near the end of his presidency, talking to portraits of his predecessors.
Gates holds the greatest admiration for Ronald Reagan, praising him as a visionary with a wonderful sense of humor. As for his tenure under presidents Bush and Obama, he “saw many areas of continuity rather than change in the national security arena” between the two administrations.
He recalled the gravity of sending troops to war as secretary of defense, and discussed the different forms of terrorism and rogue nations that threaten American and global security. But, in his eyes, the greatest threat to national security and stability is the paralyzing politics of Capitol Hill, and he believes our future place in the world depends on us, not on other countries.
“There is an unwillingness to put aside short-term partisan gain for the overall well-being of the country,” Gates lamented. “The moderate center, the foundation of our political center, is not holding. The government shutdown last month caught a lot of attention, but what’s most damaging is still ongoing: sequestration.”
He added later, “There may be a more stupid way to cut the budget, but I can’t think of one.”
During a Q&A session following his lecture, he fielded an array of inquiries and expanded on points he made during his speech.
Gates, who is an Eagle Scout himself and will become president of the Boy Scouts of America in May, touched upon the importance of volunteerism and public service – whether it’s serving in the military, volunteer teaching, working in the national parks, or tutoring. He worries that too many Americans talk about their rights as citizens without thinking about the obligations of citizenship.
“I’m a believer in one year of national service. … I believe it would help to re-instill in this country a sense of togetherness, that we are all part of the same country.”
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