Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t the first political appointee to analyze the work of an administration he served, even if that administration remains in power. In 1999, while President Bill Clinton was still in office, longtime staffer and confidant, George Stephanopoulos wrote of his disenchantment with his political mentor after the Monica Lewinsky story broke.
Stephanopoulos’ memoir was achingly personal because even as it offered a look at the way the Clinton White House worked and a bird’s eye view of the 1992 campaign, it also offered a look at a man’s inner life, and the emotional turmoil he experienced as he struggled to reconcile the Bill Clinton he admired with a Clinton he, perhaps, reviled. At the time, many marveled at the perceived disloyalty of Stephanopoulos. Shouldn’t he have waited until the Clintons had left the White House? What did the Clintons think? How would this frank disloyalty play out? Fifteen years later, President Clinton is sitting on top of the world with his Global Initiative, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the leading contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, and George Stephanopoulos is front and center at ABC News.
Now Robert Gates has written a tell-all about his time as Secretary of Defense, titled Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Many hoped that he would write something as personally searching as George Stephanopoulos did. Instead, he’s got fingers to point, axes to grind, bridges to burn, even as the Obama administration continues to deal with issues that Gates had the opportunity to weigh in on while he served as Secretary of Defense. Duty is pointedly critical of nearly everyone – Congress, Vice President Biden, President Obama, the National Security Council staff, the White House staff, you name it. People have focused on the hits the Obama administration took from Gates’ poison pen, and many have raised the question about his lack of loyalty to the Obama administration. From my perspective, Gates was disloyal to himself and to our nation, not to president Obama personally.
If he felt as strongly as he says he did, that the Obama administration should have made different defense decisions, why didn’t he say so? He talks about biting his tongue while in the White House. Why? So he could loosen it up when he got out. Had Gates been loyal to those who he pledged to serve, he would have immersed himself in the work of being Defense Secretary instead of describing himself as both contemptuous and bored. It’s that question of loyalty that plagues me with Gates, more so than Stephanopoulos. Does truth trump loyalty? When?
I think of these men when I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his unwavering loyalty to social and economic justice. He didn’t care that his opposition to the War in Vietnam was seen as disloyal to a president who responded to Dr. King’s activism on poverty issues by creating a war on poverty. King didn’t care that his opposition to Vietnam got him uninvited to some of the venues where he had been quite sought. He could have waited until “later” to write and talk about what would have happened. Somehow he knew, though, that there was no later, and so he wrote a book, Why We Can’t Wait (1964). It is perhaps unfair to compare the moral fiber of Stephanopoulos and Gates to that of Dr. King, but one cannot help note that Stephanopoulos and Gates have been criticized for being disloyal to presidents. What about principle?
There is such a thing as misplaced loyalty, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s aide Bridget Ann Kelly is about to find out. Kelly is said to have been the mastermind behind the several-day shut down of lanes on the George Washington Bridge during peak traffic hours to cause a little retaliatory confusion for Fort Lee, N.J., whose mayor did not support Christie’s re-election. Christie says he doesn’t know anything about the bridge scandal, but that his loyal (and now resigned) aide did this on her own. Really? Not without a nudge from above? Kelly may value loyalty to one man over her commitment to serve the people of New Jersey (or just Chris Christie), which is not unusual. Just disappointing.
Both Kelly and Gates should ponder King in the aftermath of the King holiday. King talked about what it meant to be unpopular because of political decision, and declared himself a drum major for justice. Bridget Kelly, Robert Gates, George Stephanopoulos, what are you drum majors for?
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.