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From the Old School
A story Gates' staff loves about him: Shortly before Obama's first state dinner, for the Indian Prime Minister in November, Gates was told that when he entered through the East Wing, a gauntlet of press would ask him what he was wearing. "Why would they ask me that?" he replied. Not wanting to be part of the red-carpet scene, he slipped in through the quiet West Wing entrance and went straight to the bar. For dinner he ate half a basket of dinner rolls, preferring them to the gourmet Indian-fusion cuisine being served to the dignitaries in the dining room.
Gates is a man of old-school habits: a Grey Goose at the end of the day and preferably steak or bacon cheeseburgers for lunch and dinner. He doesn't use a cell phone. He asked me during our interview if there was tape in my digital recorder. Gates keeps a box filled with index cards of quotes and anecdotes and one-liners he's collected over the years. His favorite comedians are both dead George Carlin and W.C. Fields. Their sensibilities suit Gates' own taking down institutions, puncturing pomp. He's even adopted some of their style. He loves to tell the same jokes about egos in Washington "where people say, I'll double-cross that bridge when I get to it," and "the only place in the world you can see a prominent person walking down lovers' lane holding his own hand."
At the height of the Iraq surge, Gates gave a speech to the Marine Corps Association. He began in Johnny Carson fashion with a long, meticulously timed story about Nixon's Secretary of Defense Mel Laird on a trip to see the Pope.
Laird was smoking a cigar, and Henry Kissinger told him to at least put it out before they went inside. "A couple of minutes into the Pope's remarks, Kissinger heard this little patting sound, and he looked over, and there was a wisp of smoke coming out of Laird's pocket. The Secretary of Defense was on fire. The American party heard this slapping and thought they were being cued to applaud. And so they did. And Henry later told us, 'God only knows what His Holiness thought, seeing the American Secretary of Defense immolating himself, and the entire American party applauding the fact.' "
The house fell apart in laughter. His audience captivated, Gates ended the speech with the story of Major Douglas Zembiec, who'd been dubbed the Lion of Fallujah by his soldiers. After a stint at the Pentagon, Zembiec went back to Iraq, where he was killed in action. Gates stumbled on his words as he went on and could barely finish. He'd been Secretary of Defense for just seven months. They were the bloodiest months of the war. Maybe these soldiers were dying for naught. By the time he uttered the words that Zembiec had fallen, everyone, including Gates, was in tears.
I asked Gates recently about that night. He told me it was not a singular event. "At the end of the West Point graduation, I told them I consider every one of them as if they were my own sons and daughters. I feel a very personal sense of responsibility for each and every one of them," he said. "And one of the reasons I've stayed on is that I worry that whoever comes next won't care as deeply, won't do the MRAPs, isn't willing to spend $30 billion to save our kids' lives and limbs. And that is very emotional."
In late 2008, with the Iraq war and Bush presidency winding down, Gates made plans to leave the Pentagon. Just before the presidential election, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed contacted Gates. Would he be interested in staying on? Would he meet with Obama about it? Gates prepared some questions. He wanted Obama to know where he was coming from. Obama read them over and told Reed, "They're right on target. I'm impressed, and it'd be useful to have a conversation with him."
What did Gates ask the President-elect? "I asked him if he could trust me."
Gates made himself easy to trust. By nature he's not a guy who seeks the limelight, and Obama has no patience for media hounds. Staffers say it turns out Gates has got more in common with Obama than he did with Bush. They're both cerebral, analytical and reflective. "Seeing terrorism as a long-term challenge I think that's kind of fundamental," Gates told me. "And President Obama has pursued that with every bit as much vigor as President Bush."