Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks during a news conference in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates returned to Washington last Tuesday and in his first major speech since leaving government spoke of his deep concern over the “decline of views and values . . . when it comes to how we govern and relate to one another here at home.”

He compared this capital’s “oversized egos and undersized backbones” with the “low-key, self-effacing demeanor . . . steadfast integrity, common decency . . . moral and political courage” of Brent Scowcroft, the 86-year-old former two-time national security adviser and Gates mentor who was being honored at the Atlantic Council dinner. Gates was among the speakers.

Scowcroft’s virtues “seem to be increasingly quaint” in this town, Gates said, comparing them with the “zero-sum politics and ideological siege warfare [that] are the new order of the day.”

Gates served for more than 30 years in government under eight presidents, Republicans and Democrats. His look at today’s Washington should be read as a reflection of what he has seen and absorbed during that time. We should take his criticisms seriously.

After all, Gates — and the country — have been through a lot since the mid-1960s. He was a young man in the Nixon White House at the time of Watergate and impeachment. In his book he described it as “being a deckhand on the Titanic.” In the Ford period, he worked through the collapse of South Vietnam and the Mayaguez incident, in which the United States seemed powerless abroad.

Iran’s taking of American hostages and the failed attempt to free them dominated the Carter period, while the Reagan years featured Lebanon bombings, “Star Wars,” Iran-contra and negotiations with the Soviet Union.

It was in that latter period, in 1987, that Gates’s career hit a bump. He was nominated to be CIA director after William Casey’s death, but he withdrew his name after two days of confirmation hearings amid Senate criticism of his possible role in the Iran-contra affair.

Gates returned to the White House National Security Council staff in 1989 as Scowcroft’s deputy. The first Bush administration saw the Berlin Wall fall, liberation of Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turning back of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Gates also finally reached his goal of becoming CIA director in November 1991.

Gates had witnessed good and bad government when he returned in 2006 as President George W. Bush’s defense secretary. How well he did was reflected in President Obama’s 2008 decision to make him the only defense secretary ever to continue in a new administration run by the opposing party.

That’s why we must pay attention when Gates says, as he did last week, that the nation’s problems “go much deeper than individual personalities.”

Like a good analyst, he looked at the election system and at Congress, focusing on what he called “the highly gerrymandered system of drawing congressional districts to create safe seats for incumbents of both parties.” The result, he said, was “elected representatives totally beholden to their party’s ideological base; wave elections that sweep one party into power after another, each seized with ideological zeal and the rightness of their agenda.”

It has led to the inability “to sustain bipartisan strategies and policies needed to address our very real and serious problems.” Anyone who looks at today’s Congress has to agree.

Gates listed qualities clearly in short supply these days: “civility, mutual respect, putting country before self and country before party, listening to and learning from one another, not pretending to have all the answers and not demonizing those with whom we differ.”

One illustration of this concern: The accusation made Wednesday by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the Senate floor about Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of this year. McCain brought up Obama’s opposition to the 2007 Bush surge and described the withdrawal, which “leaves Iraq vulnerable to terrorists and to anti-U.S. neighbors like Iran,” as being “timed to the start of the 2012 presidential election.”

McCain, who said he believes U.S. troops should have remained in Iraq until 2020, described in passing that Obama was “a patriot and good American.” He even mentioned as “the prevailing narrative . . . that the U.S. and Iraqi leaders could not reach agreement over the legal protections needed to keep our troops in Iraq.” He conceded that such an agreement was vital and “may have been a reason for our failure” to have some troops remain.

Nonetheless, McCain closed by saying: “Unfortunately, it is clear that this decision of a complete pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq was dictated by politics and not our national security interests. I believe history will judge this president’s leadership with the scorn and disdain it deserves.”

Cable and network channels that night and since have repeated only McCain’s bitter closing remarks. It illustrated perfectly one of Gates’ other points, that we are in “a 24/7 digital media environment that provides a forum and wide dissemination for the most extreme and vitriolic views, leading I believe to a coarsening and a dumbing down of our national political discourse.”

I will be the last one to defend my profession and its role in “dumbing down” our discourse. In a seminar I teach as part of Stanford University’s Washington program, I stress that government by public relations has become a reality, with the news media often passing on viewpoints without questioning the accuracy of attributed statements.

My only disagreement with Gates’s speech was with his optimistic ending. America has overcome “far worse episodes,” he said, and has the “power and means” to get through current obstacles. He bases that on a new “willingness to make tough decisions, the wisdom to see the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, and the courage to compromise on behalf of the greater good.”

I don’t see any of that on the horizon, but I hope I am wrong.