Just like with the Presidency, we’ve had people who, if not unqualified were at least poorly suited for the position of Secretary of State or Secretary of War/Defense.
Most recently, I’d say that President Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, was a bad fit for the job. He only lasted about a year and ended up resigning after the Black Hawk Down disaster in Mogadishu. As for a recent Secretary of State who was a bad fit, I think I’d point to President Reagan’s first Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. Haig was certainly qualified, but he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way within the Reagan Administration and really made a bad situation worse when Reagan was shot by getting up in front of the press at the White House, incorrectly declaring himself next in line Constitutionally after the President and Vice President, and saying that he was “in control of the government” while the President was in the hospital and the Vice President was flying back to Washington.
I didn’t get a chance to start reading Secretary Gates’s new book “Duty” until last night, so I’m only about 250 pages deep, but I think it is a remarkable book. I’ll write a full review once I’m finished, but you don’t often get such an honest, candid, no-holds-barred account from an insider like Gates, and the fact that he served as Defense Secretary under TWO Presidents of DIFFERENT parties is just incredible.
The man doesn’t hold back, he knows his work, he was deep in the councils of two very different Presidencies, and there simply aren’t many insider accounts like this. Plus, Gates is a smart dude, a highly-respected public servant, and, at times, pretty goddamn funny. If you have the slightest interest in the last two Presidential Administrations, you should go get this book two weeks ago. Like I said, full review still to come.
I think Robert Gates is probably the best Secretary of Defense (or Secretary of War) since Henry L. Stimson and probably in the Top 5 in all of American history (a lot of Americans would probably be surprised to realize that many historians, including myself consider Jefferson Davis to be #1). Gates was loyal, dependable, incredibly smart, eminently qualified, and had the respect and confidence of not only the military, but two Presidents from different parties who had almost nothing in common other than Robert Gates as their Secretary of Defense. For President Bush and President Obama, Secretary Gates was the ideal Cabinet member — supportive, yet unafraid to voice objections or an opposing viewpoint, and completely capable of managing his department and getting the most out of his people. I have nothing but respect for Robert Gates.