Excerpt from 'Duty' by Robert M. Gates

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signs

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signs copies of his new book " Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War" at the Pentagon in Washington. (Jan. 16, 2014) (Credit: Getty Images)

Chapter 1, Summoned to Duty

 

I had become president of Texas A&M University in August 2002, and by October 2006 I was well into my fifth year. I was very happy there, and many -- but not all -- Aggies believed I was making significant improvements in nearly all aspects of the university (except football). I had originally committed to staying five years but agreed to extend that to seven years -- summer 2009. Then, my wife, Becky, and I would finally return to our home in the Pacific Northwest.

The week of Oct. 15, 2006, the week that would change my life, started out routinely with several meetings. Then I took to the road, ending up in Des Moines, Iowa, where I was to give a speech on Friday, the twentieth.

Just past one p.m. that day I received an email from my secretary, Sandy Crawford, saying that President Bush's national security adviser, Steve Hadley, wanted to speak to me on the phone within an hour or two. Hadley's assistant was "quite insistent" that the message be passed to me. I told Sandy to inform the assistant I would return Steve's call on Saturday morning. I had no idea why Steve was calling, but I had spent nearly nine years at the White House on the National Security Council (NSC) staff under four presidents, and I knew that the West Wing often demanded instant responses that were rarely necessary.

Hadley and I had first met on the NSC staff in the summer of 1974 and had remained friends, though we were in contact infrequently. In January 2005, Steve -- who had succeeded Condoleezza Rice as George W. Bush's national security adviser for the second Bush term -- had asked me to consider becoming the first director of national intelligence (DNI), a job created by legislation the previous year, legislation -- and a job -- that I had vigorously opposed as unworkable. The president and his senior advisers wanted me to make it work. I met with Hadley and White House chief of staff Andy Card in Washington on Monday of inauguration week. We had very detailed conversations about authorities and presidential empowerment of the DNI, and by the weekend they and I both thought I would agree to take the job.

I was to call Card at Camp David with my final answer the following Monday. Over the weekend I wrestled with the decision. On Saturday night, lying awake in bed, I told Becky she could make this decision really easy for me; I knew how much she loved being at Texas A&M, and all she had to say was that she didn't want to return to Washington, D.C. Instead, she said, "We have to do what you have to do." I said, "Thanks a lot."

Late Sunday night I walked around the campus smoking a cigar. As I walked past familiar landmarks and buildings, I decided I could not leave Texas A&M; there was still too much I wanted to accomplish there. And I really, really did not want to go back into government. I called Andy the next morning and told him to tell the president I would not take the job. He seemed stunned. He must have felt that I had led them on, which I regretted, but it really had been a last-minute decision. There was one consolation. I told Becky, "We are safe now -- the Bush administration will never ask me to do another thing." I was wrong.

At nine a.m. on Saturday -- now nearly two years later -- I returned Steve's call as promised. He wasted no time in posing a simple, direct question: "If the president asked you to become secretary of defense, would you accept?" Stunned, I gave him an equally simple, direct answer without hesitation: "We have kids dying in two wars. If the president thinks I can help, I have no choice but to say yes. It's my duty." The troops out there were doing their duty -- how could I not do mine?

That said, I sat at my desk frozen. My God, what have I done? I kept thinking to myself. I knew that after nearly forty years of marriage, Becky would support my decision and all that it meant for our two children as well, but I was still terrified to tell her.

Josh Bolten, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, who had replaced Card as White House chief of staff earlier that year, called a few days later to reassure himself of my intentions. He asked if I had any ethical issues that could be a problem, like hiring illegal immigrants as nannies or housekeepers. I decided to have some fun at his expense and told him we had a noncitizen housekeeper. Before he began to hyperventilate, I told him she had a green card and was well along the path to citizenship. I don't think he appreciated my sense of humor.

Bolten then said a private interview had to be arranged for me with the president. I told him I thought I could slip into Washington for dinner on Sunday, Nov. 12, without attracting attention. The president wanted to move faster. Josh emailed me on Oct. 31 to see if I could drive to the Bush ranch near Crawford, Texas, for an early morning meeting on Sunday, Nov. 5.

The arrangements set up by deputy White House chief of staff Joe Hagin were very precise. He emailed me that I should meet him at eight-thirty a.m. in McGregor, Texas, about twenty minutes from the ranch. I would find him in the parking lot at the Brookshire Brothers grocery store, sitting in a white Dodge Durango parked to the right of the entrance. Dress would be "ranch casual" -- sport shirt and khakis or jeans. I look back with amusement that my job interviews with both President Bush and President-elect Obama involved more cloak-and-dagger clandestinity than most of my decades-long career in the CIA.

I did not tell anyone other than Becky what was going on except for the president's father, former president George H. W. Bush (the forty-first president, Bush 41), with whom I wanted to consult. He was the reason I had come to Texas A&M in the first place, in 1999, to be the interim dean of the George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. What was supposed to be a nine-month stint of a few days a month became two years and led directly to my becoming president of Texas A&M. Bush was sorry I would be leaving the university, but he knew the country had to come first. I also think he was happy that his son had reached out to me.

I left my house just before five a.m. to head for my interview with the president. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought a blazer and slacks more appropriate for a meeting with the president than a sport shirt and jeans. Starbucks wasn't open that early, so I was pretty bleary-eyed for the first part of the two-and-a-half-hour drive. I was thinking the entire way about questions to ask and answers to give, the magnitude of the challenge, how life for both my wife and me would change, and how to approach the job of secretary of defense. I do not recall feeling any self-doubt on the drive to the ranch that morning, perhaps a reflection of just how little I understood the direness of the situation. I knew, however, that I had one thing going for me: most people had low expectations about what could be done to turn around the war in Iraq and change the climate in Washington.

 

Excerpted from "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War" by Robert M. Gates. Copyright © 2014 by Robert M. Gates. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Newsday on social media

@Newsday

advertisement | advertise on newsday