Former Secretary of Defense Dr. Robert Gates, who worked under two presidential administrations, spoke at UNC Charlotte Sept. 21 as part of the Chancellor’s Speaker Series.
Students, faculty and administrators gathered in the Multipurpose Room of the Student Union to hear Gates discuss his latest book “Duty” and both the serious and humorous aspects of a life spent in public service.
Gates’s career began in intelligence as an officer. He worked his way up the ranks, serving in posts at the National Security Council and the White House, eventually becoming director of the CIA.
After spending some time in the private sector, he returned to government to serve as secretary of defense upon the request of former President George W. Bush. In 2009, he became the only defense secretary to serve two consecutive presidents of opposing parties. His memoir is an open reflection upon the unique experiences of his career including detailed accounts of the various personalities that have graced the White House. He brought the crowd to their feet with a well-developed balance of steely opinions and insider anecdotes.
As the moderator opened the floor to questions from the audience, requesting the audience to ask questions in a respectful way, Gates who has testified in front of both legislatures on multiple occasions jokingly remarked “in other words, not like members of Congress.”
He then went on to address his issues with Congress, his ideas on the cornerstone of good leadership and the difficult decision to leave his post among many subjects.
When asked his opinion on Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, Gates, who has written a recent opinion-editorial on the subject, evoked a quote by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes on Franklin D. Roosevelt. Holmes stated that what made Roosevelt an exceptional president was a second-rate intellect and first-rate temperament. Gates agreed and believed that good presidents share that character.
“[The best presidents] never considered themselves the smartest person in the room, felt comfortable being in a room with people smarter than them and had the temperament required to make decisions. Temperament above all,” said Gates.
He was in disdain of leaders in Congress because of their failure to build bridges across both sides of the aisle and had words of advice for younger members in the audience seeking a career in public service.
“Follow your own path but realize there is a bureaucracy-and you’re guaranteed at some point to work for a jackass,” said Gates. “Don’t identify just one mentor but multiple that are two to three levels above you and lastly be willing to take risks.”
Gates also expressed his support of mandatory national service. He believes that young Americans should be required to spend one year in public service, not only through military but through other avenues such as Teach for America.
Then he discussed the factors which may have contributed to his own success in public service.
“Never underestimate the importance of luck and timing” said Gates.
He also believed that moving around the world and getting broader experience helped him a lot. Gates said he got better at every job he did, constantly learning. With mentors such as former President George H.W. Bush, Gates thought that associating himself with good people was also critical to his success. In the case of military leaders, he noted nuances in good leadership-identifying the qualities of a good military leader during war time to be different than the qualities of a good military leader during peacetime.
Gates discussed military spending, describing weapons development projects that had been ongoing unsuccessfully for 11 years that he shut down.
In taking charge of the Department of Defense, Gates strove for efficiency and took the role of secretary under great deliberation before finally deciding to stay on board with the Obama administration. When he received a call saying that he was being considered, he wrote a list of 10 questions for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and handed it to a top aide as a basis for a conversation.
When discussing leaving his post as secretary after four and half years, Gates said that he was emotionally and physically spent.
“I felt that my concern for the troops might be overriding what was in the best interest of the United States,” Gates said.