Understanding Robert Gates ... and Hillary Clinton

First impressions: Working through former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War is a little like a visit to Arlington National Cemetery on a clear spring day. You already know he was called by a select group of elders, then by President George W. Bush, to bring America back to the path from which we had been diverted by gross misjudgment and mismanagement. Many feel, as I did, that Gates did that. Then the most interesting thing about this book and the most important, is Robert Gates. Gates was us, as America regained its balance. And Gates is us as we go forward.

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His leadership is the touchstone upon which America awakens into the century. He might be seen as the new American archetype. And what is important is that Hillary Clinton might be as well.

For a man of power, Gates is remarkably evenhanded. You could even say kind. The first thing we heard from press reports is that his book might hurt Clinton in 2016. It will certainly hurt Vice President Biden. There is fair criticism of Biden, but this is what Gates says about former Secretary of State Clinton: “She was a terrific colleague and a highly valued one — not least for her sense of humor.”

Gates and Clinton might even be two peas in a pod. And it might be possible to see a sociological shift in leadership paradigm here as we rise into the century, beyond the royal gentry of Roosevelts and Bushes of the Northeast and beyond the eastern ethnics who fill their shoes in “The West Wing.”; Liebermans and Kennedys, but vying still with eastern gentry as they did the Lodges back in the Boston days. Gates is not of those crowds, and what we recognize here is, nor is Clinton.

Gates and Clinton open another phase of Americana coming now to power. Gates states briefly that he was raised among plain, good folk in Wichita, Kan., his father an Eisenhower Republican, his mother a Democrat. They gave him a Bible for his 16th birthday. He and his brother were rough-and-tumble, often noted in their visits to the emergency room. But Clinton, the Midwestern, high school Young Republican and “Goldwater Girl,” rises from plain, Midwestern Americana as well, coming to position through determination and hard work. 

And in Gates’s book one is able — for the first time in my experience — to see Hillary Clinton at work out of the shadow of Bill Clinton, not as a Yoko-like tag-along from the '60s, but an earthy, heartland American like Gates. It is remarkable that her handlers have not presented her like that because that — and I am not particularly a fan — is what she is and how she will win. Indeed, she seems here a better collegial fit with Gates and company than with Bill and company.

This phrase defines Gates: “I did not seek this position or a return to government. I’m here because I love my country and because the President of the United States believes I can help in a difficult time.” 

It is pure, honorable and believable heartland patriotism. Post-9/11, we have seen in Gates's leadership America shift from dangerous mediocrities like Gen. Tommy Franks and Vice President Dick Cheney to distinguished leaders like Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. Mike Mullen. It is the place where America begins again.

Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. For 20 years he has been an amateur farmer, raising Tunis sheep and organic vegetables. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children. Contact him at quigley1985@gmail.com.