Top government officials need to treat negative press as a “gift,” fire people so “everyone knows who’s in charge” and presidents who don’t want leaks should limit the number of note-takers in meetings.
If billionaire Warren Buffett is the “Sage from Omaha,” Gates, who ran the Pentagon for both Presidents Bush and Obama until July, may soon be called the “Wise Man from Wichita.”
During a 90-minute speech and Q&A — there’s a audiotape on the NAPA Web site — Gates held forth on matters including:
●Congress and the media: “You know, in 4 1/2 years [at the Pentagon] I never had a line outside my office of senior executives coming. . .to tell me all the problems in their service or in their organization.”
“Some of the biggest problems that I acted on were first brought to my attention by an inquiry from Congress or an article in the press.
I found out about [deplorable conditions at] Walter Reed from a series in The Washington Post by Dana Priest” and Anne Hull. “I found out about the problem with the lack of armored vehicles in Iraq through a USA Today story. So I would say when there is an article critical of us. . . don’t go into a defensive crouch. . . maybe you’ve just been handed a gift to solve a problem you didn’t know existed.”
[A gift? Yeah, that’s the usual reaction we get after an expose.]
●Meetings strategies: Gates didn’t speak a lot in meetings. “Most people in this town just can’t hear enough of themselves, so my view was let them talk.”
Both Bush and Obama “used to complain to me. . . about leaks. I said, ‘Well, why do you let all those people take notes? For God’s sake, they’re all sitting there writing their books as you’re talking.’”
● The U.S. role in the world: “I believe [former secretary of state] Madeleine Albright was absolutely right, that we are the ‘indispensable nation.’ There is no international problem that can be addressed or solved without the engagement and leadership of the United States and everybody in the world knows that, its just fact of life. So sometimes I think we could conduct ourselves with a little more humility.”
“The United States doesn’t have to beat on its chest, it doesn’t need to strut. . . and it can afford to let others sort of step forward.”
And there were other nuggets, such as Obama reaching out to him “through an intermediary in July 2008” to see if he’d stay on as SecDef. Gates said he waved the emissary off. “I said ‘this is a little awkward. . . let’s see what happens in the election.’”
He recalled his luncheon invitation to Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he’d never met. “It was an amazing and gratifying surprise to me,” he recalled, in terms of how they developed a solid relationship.
And one of his “toughest sales jobs was talking Leon Panetta into taking my place” at the Pentagon, he said, “because I knew if I didn’t get Leon to do it, I’d never get out of there.”