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Gates' ambition and intensity didn't always endear him to his colleagues, who say he has mellowed with age. "He was on the make when I knew him. He's made it now," says one. In 1987, after then CIA director William Casey retired, Reagan nominated Gates to become director of central intelligence. It was the midst of the Iran-contra hearings, however, and there was little hope of a quick confirmation. After four weeks, Gates withdrew his nomination. He recalls going back to his job as deputy and wanting to hide from his colleagues, then getting a call that his father died. Gates was convinced that watching him go through those hearings and investigations was too much for his father's weak heart. The shock and the stress of those six months was too much for Gates as well. He shut the door to his office and wept.
The public saw only the poker face. " 'Never let them see you sweat' you can put that above Gates' door," says Richard Armitage, an old friend and colleague. Four years later, while serving as Deputy National Security Adviser under President George H.W. Bush, Gates was nominated again to be DCI. What followed was one of the longest and most bitter confirmation hearings in Senate records. CIA co-workers from the Soviet desk excoriated his character, his motives, his honesty. They called him a toady who'd fire dissenters and slant intelligence just to please his then boss, Casey. The hearings, which went on for seven weeks before Gates was finally confirmed, were even more bruising than those in 1987. They gave him perspective, Gates said, "so you don't get too pumped up about things and too down about things. One of my favorite lines is, Today a peacock, tomorrow a feather duster."
As well as being a writer, Gates is the consummate technocrat, a comforting presence who puts a face on the predictability of uncertainty. His Wichita monotone and old-fashioned speeches about service and duty exude a sense of calm and control just what the Pentagon needed at the end of 2006 as an antidote to Rumsfeld. Gates had left government in 1992 after the elder Bush's defeat and became president of Texas A&M before being summoned back to Washington by George W. Bush. At Gates' confirmation hearings, Democratic Senator Carl Levin asked whether the U.S. was winning the war in Iraq. Gates replied, "No, sir." With those two words, he won over the Democrats in the bitterly divided Congress. (He also said he didn't think the U.S. was losing.)
In his memoir Speech-less, Matt Latimer, a speechwriter for both Rumsfeld and Bush, describes Gates as "our Winston Wolf," the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction who comes to dispose of the bodies and take care of the bloody mess after an accidental killing. "Wolf was a case study of robotic efficiency, overseeing an elaborate cleanup while calmly drinking a cup of coffee," writes Latimer. "That's what President Bush wanted a cold-blooded competent cleaner."
The cleaner quickly went to work. He walked into the Pentagon alone. Inheriting many former Rumsfeld aides, Gates told them on his first day that he wouldn't be firing anyone. There was no time for confirmations, and he was leaving that day for Iraq. Gates brought a sense of relief, a feeling that an adult was back in charge.
Two months into his tenure, the Washington Post broke the scandal about the miserable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the outdated, Kafkaesque bureaucracy facing wounded soldiers just to get medical attention and benefits. Gates fired the Army's secretary and surgeon general and the hospital commander. The special-ops community nicknamed him the Black Chinook lands at night, takes care of business and gets out.
One of the things his staffers love about him is his common sense, I-don't-get-it attitude toward the stupidity of bureaucracy. Now that he's past worrying about climbing within that bureaucracy, he has the confidence to break it. At the height of the Iraq surge in 2007, which Gates supported, more than 100 soldiers a month were dying. It's almost impossible as an outsider to understand why the Pentagon would not want to build the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, known as MRAPs, that would have saved many of those soldiers' lives. Instead of budgeting for MRAPs, the Pentagon was still spending money on outdated weapon systems. So Gates bypassed the normal procurement process, created a special task force, went to Congress and got the money to build them. "Those vehicles saved hundreds of lives and limbs," says a senior Pentagon official.
The same thing happened in Afghanistan. The absurdities of the NATO campaign, in which each country's forces operate according to their own particular caveats many of which include no fighting shocked Gates during his visit a year and a half ago. "He heard that we had a soldier who was shot and was in Spain's AOR [area of responsibility]. The Spanish troops had to call back to Madrid to seek permission to medevac him," a Pentagon aide told me. "The soldier lived. But Gates was furious." He also heard that while wounded soldiers in Iraq were guaranteed a medevac within the "golden hour," in Afghanistan they could wait as long as 1 hr. 41 min. Gates saw that there were Air Force helicopters sitting on the tarmac at the Bagram base, on call for search-and-rescue missions to recover downed airplanes something that hadn't happened in years. Why couldn't they be used to evacuate soldiers? It was a classic case of interservice rivalry getting in the way of practical solutions to save lives. Gates insisted that they all ramp up their medevac capabilities. Today most wounded soldiers are evacuated within an hour, and the formerly grounded Air Force has begun flying so many missions that Army pilots have expressed envy.
The list of mindless bureaucratic obstacles that were hampering the war effort was dizzying. For example: military officers complained that there were not enough drones, Predators and unmanned reconnaissance in the air to help target insurgent cells. The holdup? Air Force pilots are taught to fly real planes, not drones. Each pilot costs about $1 million to train. And yet some staff sergeants in the Army had started operating the drones at a fraction of the price, with far fewer crashes. "If the Army is doing it safer and cheaper and able to produce more pilots faster, why aren't we doing it to that standard?" Gates asked. "This requires a cultural revolution in the Air Force," explained one of his staffers which it got in 2008, after Gates fired the civilian and military leaders of the service for other reasons. Now the Air Force licenses junior officers to fly unmanned aircraft, and Gates has tripled the number of drones operating in the war zones.