Gates starts to say what he really thinks


(Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“As a result of several long-building, polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country,” Gates said last week at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia where he received that group’s Liberty Medal.

He cited two causes worth considering.

The first was redistricting of congressional seats which, he said, created safe Republican and Democratic seats but led to party primaries “where candidates must cater to the most hard-core ideological elements of their base.” He wondered how this could be changed to “ensure that more candidates for Congress are forced to appeal to independents, centrists, and at least some members of the other political party to win election, just as presidential candidates must do?”

He also cited the role of an evolving news media. He looked longingly to decades past when three television networks and a handful of major newspapers dominated national coverage and “to a considerable degree, filtered extreme or vitriolic points of view.”

Today, he said, “hundreds of cable channels, blogs and other electronic media” have given wide dissemination to “every point of view, including the most extreme.” The result, according to Gates, though more democratic, “has fueled the coarsening and, I believe, the dumbing down of the national political dialogue.”

He described these two trends, along with some other factors, as polarizing the country at a time when the need is for “more bipartisanship, and more compromise to deal with our most serious problems.”

Citing his time working for eight presidents of both parties over more than 40 years, Gates said, none “had a monopoly on revealed truth.”

And without naming any of today’s leaders or presidential candidates, he warned: “Those who think that they alone have the right answers, those who demonize those who think differently, and those who refuse to listen and take other points of view into account—these leaders, in my view, are a danger to the American people and to the future of our republic.”

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

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