Hints on Why Bush Chose Robert Gates as the New SecDef

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This month Texas Monthly published a cover story on Texas A&M University President Robert Gates, who a few hours ago replaced Donald Rumsfeld as Bush’s Secretary of Defense, making this one of the magazine’s most timely (or worst timed) stories ever, depending on how you look at it. The profile by Paul Burka is full of hints why Bush may have chosen Gates as SecDef, as well as odd gems about the former CIA man.

Who would have known, for example, that Gates protested against the Vietnam war? Burka writes:

He opposed the war, as did most of his CIA friends, and even marched in protest of U.S. activity in Cambodia. “Popular impressions then and now about the CIA—especially as a conservative, Cold War bureaucratic monolith—have always been wrong. … ” (In his book about the Cold War, From the Shadows) he writes of the influence of the counterculture, of experiments with marijuana by supervisors, of anti-Nixon posters and bumper stickers that “festooned CIA office walls.” Nixon comes in for some harsh words. Richard Helms, then the CIA director, told a story about going into the Oval Office just as Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was leaving. Nixon pointed at Laird and said, “There goes the most devious man in the United States,” to which Gates adds, “Some accolade, considering the source.”

Burka on Gates’ personality:

As you might expect, Bob Gates is not a man who reveals himself. I have been around him three times, once in 2004 and twice for this story. He is one of the most consistent personalities I’ve ever met. He’s all business, a man under total self-control. He doesn’t fidget. He isn’t a backslapper. He doesn’t make small talk. He doesn’t boast; neither does he engage in false modesty. He is a motivator, not a cheerleader. He is always polite. He wears an air of authority as if it were tailored by Brooks Brothers. He answers questions fully but volunteers little. Most of his laughter comes from a finely developed sense of irony. I would back him to the hilt in a no-limit poker game.

Gates was hand-picked four years ago by Bush the Elder to lead Texas A&M, a large, mediocre (ranked 67th ) university in the middle of the Texas sticks, moribund by tradition and an image as a redoubt of hicks and crackers. He set about to change the school: “The old-boy network may not be gone entirely, but it is endangered,” Burka writes. “About four hundred staff positions have been eliminated since Gates became president. ‘I was not brought here,’ [Gates] told me, ‘to be everybody’s friend.'”

What may have led George W. to tap Gates for SecDef, though, is aptitude for brand management. Burka spends most of his time marveling at Gates’ intense public relations push to change A&M’s image:

To accomplish this, Gates has created a new position, chief marketing officer and vice president for communications, whose job will be to oversee what Gates calls the “rebranding of Texas A&M.”. . . Gates is determined to see it through. “There is a huge opportunity cost if we don’t do it,” he said. “We need to significantly improve the public’s knowledge and perception of the university.”. . .

The branding process for A&M identified six core values: integrity, loyalty, excellence, leadership, selfless service, and respect. The last core value addresses a longtime problem at A&M—as Moore puts it, “respect, acceptance, and inclusion for all Aggies with respect to race, color, gender, and religion.” All of these values point to a core purpose: “to develop leaders of character dedicated to serving the greater good.”

Next up on the rebranding syllabus: Iraq?

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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