If billionaire Warren Buffett is the “Sage From Omaha,” Gates, who ran the Pentagon for Presidents George W. Bush and Obama
until July, may soon be called the “Wise Man From Wichita.”
During a 90-minute speech and Q&A — there’s audio on the NAPA Web site — Gates held forth on matters including:
●Congress and the media: “You know, in 41
2 years [at the Pentagon] I never had a line outside of 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 either by an inquiry from Congress or by an article in the press.
“I found out about [deplorable conditions at] Walter Reed due to 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’s an article critical of us . . . don’t go into a defensive crouch. . . . Maybe you’ve just been handed a gift to fix a problem that you didn’t even know existed.”
(A gift? Yeah, that’s the usual reaction we get after an exposé.)
●Meeting 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 — 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 — it’s just a fact of life. So I think sometimes 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 said, describing 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.”