Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday night decried the rancorous partisanship and intractable gridlock in American politics, and expressed his grave concern about the country's future if lawmakers continue to treat compromise as a dirty word.
"At a time when our country faces deep economic and other obstacles at home and a world that just keeps getting more complex and more dangerous, those who think they alone have the right answers, who demonize those who think differently ... are a danger to the American people and to our future," said Gates, who was presented the 2011 Liberty Medal at a ceremony inside the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall, where he was honored for his 50 years of public service under eight presidential administrations.
While he acknowledged that "vitriol and nastiness are nothing new" in American discourse, he added that "we are in uncharted territory when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system."
He said three polarizing trends are preventing "the ability to execute even the basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing this country."
He specifically cited a highly partisan redistricting process, lack of a consistent strategy across multiple presidencies and Congresses to address complex problems, and an explosion of cable television channels, blogs and other electronic media that widely disseminate even the most extreme points of view.
"This system is clearly more democratic and open," he said, "but it has also fueled the coarsening and, I believe, the dumbing down of the national political dialogue."
Two Iraq War veterans, retired Army Capt. Anthony Odierno and Sgt. 1st Class Dana Graham, presented the medal to a visibly moved Gates.
Odierno, winner of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, lost his left arm in a 2004 attack in Baghdad and presented the prestigious award to Gates on behalf of the Wounded Warrior Project. Graham, who also received the Purple Heart and has been in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard since 2007, was representing the USO of Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.
Gates, 67, arrived at the Pentagon job from the presidency of Texas A&M University. He had retired from government service in 1993 after 27 years at the CIA, where he became the first entry-level employee to rise to the position of director.
In December 2006, President George W. Bush recruited him to return to Washington to turn around the flagging and increasingly unpopular U.S.-led war in Iraq as the successor to Donald Rumsfeld, who quit in the wake of a Republican trouncing in the congressional elections one month earlier.
President Barack Obama convinced Gates to stay on, making him the only defense secretary to be retained by a new administration and to serve two different political parties. He stepped down at the end of June and will become chancellor of College of William and Mary in February.
Gates presided over the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was involved in such key decisions as the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military. Troop welfare was a signature issue for Gates, who as defense secretary pressed to get more heavily armored vehicles and hunter-killer drones to troops in the field.
The ceremony featured video tributes from former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, many of whom honored Gates for his ability to transcend party politics.
Bill Clinton called him "a genius at bipartisan alliances," and George W. Bush called him a patriot who cared deeply for soldiers.
Since 1989, the Liberty Medal has been awarded annually to individuals or organizations whose actions strive to bring liberty to people around the world.
Previous recipients of the Liberty Medal include rock singer and human rights activist Bono, former South African President Nelson Mandela and. Six winners have subsequently received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003 near Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, is dedicated to increasing public understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the ideas and values it represents.
Liberty Medal: http://constitutioncenter.org/libertymedal