Retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates breezed back onto the national scene last week by speaking his mind. Oh, and did he speak it -- loudly enough, robustly enough to remind all within earshot what it means to hear an honest man seek to serve the truth.
I said "seek" to serve. Did he actually serve, and how would we know for sure? With any of Gates' memorable judgments, ladled out in a memoir called "Duty," we are entitled constitutionally to differ. Is President Obama, as Gates avers, skeptical of his own Afghanistan policy? Are the majority of representatives in Congress "uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country?" Has Vice President Joe Biden "been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades"? Do foreign policy calculations spring as often as not these days from domestic political reasonings?
The take on Gates, from the White House's 4-3 defense, official and unofficial, is reproach for disloyalty. "You should not write a book," says ex-Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, "that your boss has to answer to while he's in office." In the website Politico John Harris sees "Duty" as "a move to advance (Gates') profile at the expense of the loyalty and the kind of sanctity" -- Harris' possibly self-revealing word choice -- "of the policy process which he owed."
Let us clear our throats. Let us, if we feel the need, shuffle our feet in embarrassment for our brother, thus impugned. But, durn, honey, didn't it feel good, as well as revitalizing, to hear a public man speak the unsparing truth as he sees it? And wouldn't it be nice to see it happen more often?
Commitment to truth is never quite the coin of the political realm, but particular eras are more distinguished than others for fakery and overweening interest in elections and polls -- especially as the prospects for power increase. One is supposed to say, in the interest of fair play, they all do it -- all parties and interests deceive. Which they do. Some particular complaints about the incumbent Democrats arise, nevertheless, in this context.
"If you like your policy, you can keep it" springs to mind. President Obama's purpose was to banish fears about the results of Obamacare. Could he really have asked his experts whether such a promise was likely to prove true or false? Not so's we hear. The eagerness of the president's media claque to help him change the subject, as with the Syrian "red line," similarly grates.
Gates' reproaches toward Congress -- micromanagerial, hypocritical and the rest -- go the heart of the complaint against politics as presently practiced. Take Harry Reid, the Democrats' Senate leader, an ex-boxer whose sense of strategy constantly tells him, "Wipe the floor with the so-and-sos." And if they object, change the rules -- as the Senate did, at Reid's bidding, to eliminate discussion of the credentials of many presidential appointees. No wonder next-to-nothing passes in that death trap.
Joe Biden's world-class lack of judgment; the controlling nature and "operational meddling" of the Obama national security team; the administration's concern for politics at the expense of good strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq -- all these, as Gates understands them, impeached the competence of Obama's White House. Also, they contributed to outcomes unworthy of the troops whose sacrifices wrung the heart of their boss at the Pentagon.
The former defense secretary will need an armored car if he comes within hailing distance of Pennsylvania Avenue. This is what happens in politics to those who question words and deeds that seem not to match up with reality and sound judgment.
The politics of fantasy yield small space for examining how political boasting and chest thumping play out in the real world. How rewarding, as always, to see fantasy, as fingered by a distinguished public servant, taken to the cleaners: the problem being that we don't see it happen half as often as we need to.