Secretary Gates leaves 'em laughing - as his staff cringes

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates often tells people that if they really want to know what he thinks, they should read his speeches "very carefully." Yet even a cursory reading of his collected oratory reveals this undeniable truth: Gates loves Washington jokes - very, very bad Washington jokes.

Last month, Gates, clad in a dark suit, white shirt and navy tie - the unofficial uniform of the Washington bureaucrat - stood before a capacity crowd at the Marines' Memorial Club & Hotel in San Francisco. He gripped the lectern with both hands and peered into the sold-out auditorium.

"It's a pleasure to be with you in San Francisco," Gates said in a deadpan reminiscent of W.C. Fields. "But then, I have to confess, it's a pleasure to be anywhere but Washington, D.C. - a place where so many people are lost in thought because it is such unfamiliar territory."

The audience laughed and clapped. Gates, buoyed by the reaction, pressed ahead: "Where people say, 'I'll double-cross that bridge when I get to it.' "

Gates's anti-Washington jokes, which sound as though they were cribbed from an old issue of Reader's Digest, are a staple of just about every speech the defense secretary gives outside Washington. His ordinarily loyal staffers roll their eyes at his one-liners. The press corps groans. Gates's speechwriters have refused to include the jokes in his speeches. Gates puts them in.

There's a certain irony - some would say hypocrisy - to Gates cracking wise on Washington whenever he strays outside the Beltway. The Wichita native arrived in the nation's capital in 1966 and has served in the top ranks of the CIA, the White House and the Pentagon. His 1997 autobiography, "From the Shadows," touts itself as the "ultimate insider's story of five presidents and how they won the Cold War."

In his most recent Washington stint, Gates has worked for two more presidents and earned a reputation as the most influential defense secretary in decades.

One might argue that Gates's lowbrow, anti-Washington humor reflects a deeply sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of the nation's capital. To excel in Washington, it's sometimes better not to be seen as too eager to be part of Washington.

The Pentagon's top spokesman rejects this theory. "The jokes do not disguise some secret fondness for Washington," said Geoff Morrell, a native Washingtonian.

Still, he conceded that the jokes offer some insight into the way Gates operates. "There are actually a lot of layers to these jokes," he said.

Gates spent all of the Clinton administration and the early years of the second Bush presidency far from the Beltway, living in Washington state and College Station, Tex., where he ran Texas A&M University. But ever since he took the helm at the Pentagon four years ago, Gates has played the role of the outsider battling out-of-touch bureaucrats.

He has fired senior officials who haven't performed to his liking and cut prized weapons programs, often over the staunch objections of lawmakers and his own generals. In his latest crusade, Gates has vowed to cut hundreds of billions of dollars in overhead costs from the Pentagon budget. He's even suggested that his own staff, which has added hundreds of positions in the past decade, has grown too cumbersome.

In Gates's most personal and passionate speeches to the military's service academies, he has lavished praise on the department's heretics who risked their careers to force change. "At some point in your career, each of you will surely work for a jackass; we all have," Gates told midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy this spring. "But that doesn't make taking a stand any less necessary for the sake of our country."

Defenders of Gates's jokes maintain that the defense secretary knows his audience. "Real live people like hearing what they think is a good joke over and over again, no matter how corny," said one senior military official who worked for Gates and, like many in Washington, was reluctant to admit publicly he doesn't always laugh at his boss's jokes. "Furthermore, what may seem corny here may not be so corny in Peoria."

Morrell agreed. "To some, the jokes may seem old and stale. They may fall flat in Washington. But without fail, they work on the road," he said, while emphasizing that Washingtonians shouldn't take offense.

Earlier this spring Gates traveled to Kansas, where he spoke before a crowd of about 500 people at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library. A middle school band warmed up the crowd with jazz standards from the 1950s. A Boy Scout honor guard held down his right flank.

"It's always a treat to be someplace other than Washington, D.C.," Gates said. "The only place where, as I like to say, you can see a prominent person walking down Lover's Lane holding his own hand." The audience hooted with laughter.

The defense secretary's jokes have even won over some fans inside the Beltway. A few weeks ago, Tim Farley, the host of Sirius-XM radio's public affairs channel, patched together audio of Gates's anti-Washington shtick with an announcer's booming voice and the sounds of a boisterous comedy club audience.

"He's on a farewell tour," the announcer intones. "And he's taking heavily armed comedy to your town!"

Farley said he was tickled at the thought of the white-haired, sober-minded Gates fishing for laughs in a smoky club. "It's kind of like Yoda going on a comedy tour," said Farley. He calls the segment "SecDef Comedy Jam 2010," a play on the military's shorthand name for the secretary of defense.

In the latter days of his tenure, Gates has even begun experimenting with some new material. On his way to Iraq and Afghanistan last month, the Pentagon chief stopped in Milwaukee to deliver a speech at the American Legion National Convention.

"It's my pleasure to be with the American Legion," Gates told the crowd of aging veterans. "Of course, I would have to tell you it's a pleasure to be away from Washington. D.C. - a town all too clearly built on a swamp and in so many ways still a swamp."

The press corps groaned. Gates's staffers rolled their eyes. The crowd roared with approval.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company