When my book comparing U.S. Secretaries of Defense was published in 2006, I had no hesitation subtitling it: "the nearly impossible job of Secretary of Defense." After all, more than one out of every three Pentagon leaders had been fired or forced to resign -- a fate then-serving Don Rumsfeld experienced a few months later.
Then Bob Gates was named to the post, served with great distinction, and was then retained in office by the incoming president from a different political party. The first SecDef Gates, Thomas S., served with great distinction at the end of the Eisenhower administration and set the stage for the far-reaching reforms by Robert McNamara. The second SecDef Gates (no relation to the first) served with even greater distinction and managed to please two quite different presidents from different political parties as well as their national security teams and congressional leaders of both parties. No small accomplishment!
The National Academy of Public Administration recently honored Bob Gates with the Elliot Richardson Prize for Excellence in Public Service. [Richardson himself served only four months as SecDef, one of many posts in a distinguished career of public service.] Gates accepted the honor and displayed his knowledge and candor through a lengthy question and answer session. He described how he worked to win the confidence of his subordinates and how he forged a strong alliance with the Secretary of State. While he made good use of the Pentagon and its processes, he noted that, to get a rapid response from the bureaucracy, "I basically found that in every instance I had to go outside the bureaucracy and create something new."
Gates also lamented the "polarization of the partisanship" in American politics. "Compromise is the foundation of American political stability," he noted. Many trenchant observations. Read the whole transcript.