In the Loop: Bob Gates, a sage for our times


As defense secretary, Robert Gates didn’t speak a lot in meetings, he said. “Most people in this town just can’t hear enough of themselves, so my view was, let them talk.” (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)
Al Kamen
Columnist March 20, 2012

Top government officials need to treat negative press as a “gift” and 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.

Just a few of the pearls dropped by former defense secretary Bob Gates last week as he received a public service award from the National Academy of Public Administration.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

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.”

Candidates’ hidden fees

An obscure monthly report showing how much political candidates owe the airlines for their travel might be Washington’s best-kept secret — but only because no one seems to care.

It’s so under-the-radar that most of the people responsible for monitoring such debts don’t know the report even exists, and now it might disappear completely: The agency keeping tabs on candidates’ red ink is wondering whether it should even bother.

Every month, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a particularly wonky organ within the already wonky innards of the Transportation Department, gets reports from the major airline carriers. The carriers list pertinent statistics such as ticket prices, wait times on the tarmac and the like. Among the figures is an odd little factoid — the amount they are owed by political candidates.

Airlines must disclose which candidates owe them money and how much, but only if it’s more than $5,000 and is overdue by a month. The Transportation Department does nothing with that information — a spokesman says the records live in a file cabinet — and instead passes it along to the Federal Election Commission.

The FEC doesn’t seem to have much use for it, either. An initial response to our call to the agency’s public affairs office was: “Are you sure we keep that?”

Turns out they do, but it’s almost never used — for anything.

That’s not to say there’s nothing interesting in it. According to the most recent filing, an entity called “Republic Hdqtrs” owes $6,831.25 to United Airlines.

Even bona fide political-money experts are blissfully unaware of the data. “I think you might be the only one who knows about this,” said Fred Wertheimer , the guru from watchdog group Democracy 21.

The airline debt-reporting might go the way of the dodo bird. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics is seeking public comment on its “continuing need and usefulness,” according to a notice in the Federal Register.

The sound of crickets that will doubtless greet this query might speak louder than words.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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