Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t the first political appointee to analyze the work of an administration he served, even if that administration remains in power.
In 1999, while President Bill Clinton was still in office, longtime staffer and confidant, George Stephanopoulos wrote of his disenchantment with his political mentor after the Monica Lewinsky story broke.
Stephanopoulos’ memoir was achingly personal because even as it offered a look at the way the Clinton White House worked and a bird’s eye view of the 1992 campaign, it also offered a look at a man’s inner life, and the emotional turmoil he experienced as he struggled to reconcile the Bill Clinton he admired with a Clinton he, perhaps, reviled. At the time, many marveled at the perceived disloyalty of Stephanopoulos.
Shouldn’t he have waited until the Clintons had left the White House? What did the Clintons think? How would this frank disloyalty play out? Fifteen years later, President Clinton is sitting on top of the world with his Global Initiative, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the leading contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, and George Stephanopoulos is front and center at ABC News.
Now Robert Gates has written a tell-all about his time as Secretary of Defense, titled Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Many hoped that he would write something as personally searching as George Stephanopoulos did. Instead, he’s got fingers to point, axes to grind, bridges to burn, even as the Obama administration continues to deal with issues that Gates had the opportunity to weigh in on while he served as Secretary of Defense. Duty is pointedly critical of nearly everyone – Congress, Vice President Biden, President Obama, the National Security Council staff, the White House staff, you name it. People have focused on the hits the Obama administration took from Gates’ poison pen, and many have raised the question about his lack of loyalty to the Obama administration. From my perspective, Gates was disloyal to himself and to our nation, not to president Obama personally.
Where is the loyalty?
If he felt as strongly as he says he did, that the Obama administration should have made different defense decisions, why didn’t he say so? He talks about biting his tongue while in the White House. Why? So he could loosen it up when he got out. Had Gates been loyal to those who he pledged to serve, he would have immersed himself in the work of being Defense Secretary instead of describing himself as both contemptuous and bored. It’s that question of loyalty that plagues me with Gates, more so than Stephanopoulos. Does truth trump loyalty? When?
Gates should ponder King in the aftermath of the King holiday. King talked about what it meant to be unpopular because of political decision, and declared himself a drum major for justice. Robert Gates, George Stephanopoulos, what are you drum majors for?
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.