Our leaders are not held in particularly high regard these days. Corruption, venality, ideological rigidity and self-serving politics have helped create a national atmosphere of discord and divisiveness and have helped push politicians and government officials down, down, down in the polls.
So it is worth taking note of Robert Gates, the U.S. secretary of Defense since late 2006, who is stepping down this week. Gates, a 67-year-old former CIA director, served in his current job under two presidents: George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And though the two were as different as two presidents could be, Gates served them both as a pragmatic, independent, non-ideological voice of reason, by all appearances driven less by self-promotion than by concern for the national interest and the common good.
He wasn't always one of our favorites. Back in the 1980s, Gates was a little too close to (but never indicted in) the Iran-Contra scandal, in which American officials traded arms for hostages in Iran and used the profits to fund the right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. He was known as a hotheaded and impulsive Cold Warrior, a hard-liner against the Soviets and other governments of the left. He even advocated airstrikes against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in 1984.
Gates has mellowed since then, but even now we don't agree with all of his positions, including his vehement campaign in recent weeks for only a "modest" reduction in troop levels in Afghanistan this year and next.
But as secretary of Defense, he has been honest and outspoken, a grown-up in a world where not everyone is. He was skeptical about the current mission in Libya, as this page was, arguing that U.S. forces were already spread too thin in two other wars. He called the repeal of the military's homophobic "don't ask, don't tell" policy "common sense and common decency." He oversaw the "surge" strategy that helped bring the war in Iraq to a close.
During his tenure, Gates presided over 2 1/2 troubled wars (although he can't be blamed for starting any of them). And during that time, he became increasingly skeptical of the power of military intervention to solve all problems. In recent weeks, he's spoken frankly about his growing disenchantment with "wars of choice."
"If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say 'Let's go,''' he told the New York Times in an exit interview. "I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.... I hope I've prevented us from doing some dumb things over the past 4 1/2 years."
To the Los Angeles Times, he talked poignantly about writing letters late in the evening to the families of soldiers who had died (unlike his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, whose condolence letters were often signed by autopen). The deaths of soldiers, Gates said, took a deep toll on him, and in the end it was how "the kids" felt about him — the kids who served — that was all that mattered. "The rest of it is just Washington talk," he said.
At a time when "Washington talk" is synonymous to many Americans with double-speak and empty rhetoric, it was nice to have a straight shooter around.