NEW YORK — Robert Gates, whose career leading the CIA and the Pentagon perhaps didn't lend itself to levity, is clearly unenthusiastic about the idea of describing each of the eight presidents he's served in a word or two.
But in an interview Tuesday with USA TODAY's Capital Download, Gates — who after all is promoting his new book — agrees to give it a try.
LBJ? "Tragic figure."
Richard Nixon? "America's strangest president."
Gerald Ford? "Greatly underestimated."
Jimmy Carter? "Too unfocused, too many priorities."
Ronald Reagan? "Visionary leader."
George H.W. Bush? "Another greatly underestimated president."
Bill Clinton? He notes Clinton is the only president of the last nine in whose administration he didn't serve, but he ventures a description anyway. "Probably the best politician as president since Franklin Roosevelt."
George W. Bush? "Committed."
Barack Obama? "Courageous."
That last assessment may surprise some, given the furor over his account of the current president in the book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War. While he depicts Obama as losing faith in Afghanistan war strategy and suspicious of top military brass, Gates says the overall portrait of Obama in the 618-page tome is positive.
Indeed, he sent a copy of the book to Obama with what he describes as "a very warm inscription."
Did he also send a copy to Vice President Biden, described in the book as having been wrong on just about just every national security issue for decades?
"No, I didn't."
Gates, now 70 and living outside of Seattle, says he was able to be blunt in the book "because I never intend to go back in Washington in an official role." He describes the East Coast Washington as increasingly dysfunctional. Congress is no longer able to complete even its most basic responsibilities, such as passing a budget. The Pentagon bureaucracy also comes under fire.
Consider, for instance, the way he learned in 2007 that a new sort of armored vehicle called MRAPs — for "mine-resistant, ambush-protected" — was saving Marines from IEDs in Iraq. He read about it in USA TODAY, then asked for a briefing. Later, it was through the continuing news coverage that he learned about frustrating delays in sending them to the troops on dangerous duty.
The problem, he says,was that military officials didn't want to spend money on them. "They kept thinking the war was always going to end just around the corner, that the war was going to be short," he said. "That was the original position going in, and even by 2007 they were still assuming that the war was winding down, and so they didn't want to spend a lot of money on something that wouldn't be needed for very long and would be surplus at the end of the war.
"My attitude was, when you're in a war, you're all in, and you provide whatever equipment is required not only for the troops to accomplish their mission but to come home safely."
The MRAPs saved lives.
"Saved a lot of lives and a lot of limbs," he says.
Gates is caustic about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose disclosures of surveillance by the super-secret agency have roiled controversy among Americans and around the world. "The disclosures have been very damaging, and I worry a lot when I read that there's still a lot that has not been disclosed yet," he says. But he is "totally opposed" to a plea bargain for Snowden, now in Russia.
"He should be put on trial."
He is, however, a bit skeptical of the outraged protests from friendly foreign leaders about the revelations the NSA has been spying on them, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal cellphone.
"Frankly, I feel like we're swimming in an ocean of hypocrisy here," he says. "I mean, it's not for nothing that the president carries an electro-magnetically protected tent with him everywhere he travels in the world — everywhere he travels in the world," including to such allies as England, France and Germany. The tent provided a setting secure from surveillance.
"So did I as the secretary of Defense. So did the secretary of State.They don't do that for the camping experience."