Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had his official portrait unveiled in a small ceremony in the Pentagon Tuesday while the rest of the East Coast hunkered down for Hurricane Sandy.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gates pressed on with the ceremony as Washington D.C. shut down under weather conditions that seemed fitting for a leader who took over the Pentagon at one of the country’s most turbulent times. Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld, a historically unpopular defense secretary with military leaders, as the U.S. was quickly losing control of a growing insurgency in Iraq.
Panetta summed up Gates’ approach to the job from the beginning.
“Bob has said, that he had three priorities when he came into the job as secretary: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. And he came into this building on a war footing, determined to provide the commanders on the ground and their troops everything they needed in order to succeed,” Panetta said.
Gates faced “the massive and sometimes entrenched bureaucracy at the Pentagon,” Panetta said. He responded by not accepting excuses and demanding service and defense industry leaders remove the roadblocks to get troops the equipment and vehicles they needed to defeat the network of improvised explosive devices that butchered troops in Iraq.
“When it came to his attention that acquiring more heavily armed MRAPs could help protect troops from the threat of lethal IEDs, he refused to accept any excuses from a defense establishment that had ignored pleas upon pleas from the battlefield,” Panetta said.
“Hearing from our troops how much they valued that protection is, I think, a lasting legacy of Bob. He helped save lives.”
Plenty of time was spent appropriately lauding Gates’ significant accomplishments as head of the Pentagon, but Panetta, and later Gates, made sure to keep it light as they shared stories while also poking fun at themselves and a few of Gates senior aides.
Panetta shared a story about his time flying into Iraq as a member of the Iraq Study Group with Gates and the moment the two finally got a chance to share something a bit stronger than tea.
“I’ll never forget — I’ve mentioned this before — going into Baghdad in 2006. It’s not a — not a pleasant experience. You had to do a kind of corkscrew landing going into Baghdad in order to avoid fire. And then we shot off with armed helicopters to our location,” Panetta said.
“And then as you all know, every meeting we held, we drank tea after tea after tea after tea, and finally Bob and I looked at each other, and he hustled me off to the CIA headquarters and bar. And we finally had a decent drink. That’s when I knew that Bob was really my kind of guy.”
Gates then took his turn, not afraid to share a bit of self deprecating humor. First, he discussed the implications of having your portrait done twice by Ray Kinstler, the noted artist who has painted seven presidents and more than 60 cabinet officers. Gates’ first portrait was done in 1993 at the conclusion of his run as the director of the CIA.
“Recently, I took another look at Ray’s official portrait of me from 1993. It didn’t seem all that different, a few pounds lighter, maybe a couple of inches taller. The hair a more useful shade of white. A sure sign you’ve been in Washington too long is when Ray Kinstler has more than one crack at your portrait a generation apart,” Gates said.
He didn’t let his staff, many of whom attended the ceremony, off the hook either. Gates poked fun at his longtime spokesman, Geoff Morell and his sense of fashion.
“Other curiosities — other curiosities that linger, include Geoff Morell’s sense of fashion, which I’ve never seen before or since. Best described as Tommy Hilfiger meets Thurston Howell,” Gates joked, referencing the Gilligan’s Island character.
Gates’ love for barbecue was well know. Many of the defense reporters who traveled with Gates referred to his plane as the “Big Brisket” as barbecue was often the meal served on the plane. Gates noted that the plane has since received a new nickname under Panetta’s leadership.
“I’ve heard there have been a number of changes around here since the Panetta regime took over. I’ve heard the E-4B has a new nickname. It’s no longer the ‘Big Brisket,’ but ‘Airborne Cannoli,'” Gates said referencing Panetta’s Italian heritage.
Gates made sure to end on a serious not as he mulled what his legacy will be going forward — a legacy he has had time to consider as he works on a book in retirement.
“If they come away with nothing else from my tenure as secretary, I hope it is recognition that I came to work every day with the simple question: Are we doing everything we can to get the troops everything they need to succeed in their mission, to come home safely, and if wounded, to get the best possible care when they come home?” Gates said.