Defense Secetary Robert Gates, 67, retired from his today, leaving the city he never loved but always had an affinity for him. Washington DC insiders came out today to show their support for Gates who has served the country for over four decades, serving eight presidents.
In a surprise move at the farewell ceremony at the Pentagon, President Obama presented Gates with the Medal of Freedom. The award is the highest honor that can bestowed for public service.
Gates, who is known as a private, pragmatic and modest man was clearly emotional as he received the honor from President Obama.
“If you look past all of Bob’s flashiness, bravado and his sharp attire, his love for the Washington limelight,” Obama joked, turning serious to add, “then what you see is a man I’ve come to know and respect, a humble American patriot, a man of common sense and decency.”
A briefly emotional Gates said he was not expecting the medal honor — the highest a president can bestow on a civilian. In a reference to the secret Osama bin Laden mission, Gates told Obama, “we should have known a couple months ago you’d gotten good at this covert ops stuff.”
Before serving as Defense Secretary, Gates lead the Central Intelligence Agency. In 2006, he was appointed to the post under the George W. Bush, bringing candor on that Administration’s handling of the war in Iraq. From day one he made it clear he would not participate in the doublespeak. When asked by a senator at his confirmation hearing, if he believed U.S. troops were winning in Iraq he replied, curtly: “No, sir.”
Gates was also the first member of the Bush administration to take accountability and action when press reports revealed the appalling conditions of injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He was also responsible for gaining internal military support for ending the homophobic “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, calling the policy change a matter of “common sense and common decency.”
In his farewell speech, Gates called serving at the Pentagon “the greatest honor and privilege of my life.” While he is a profound man, his modesty means he rarely expels on his legacy.
In an interview with The New York Times, Gates was asked what he hoped his legacy would be. He said simply:
“The only thing I guess I would say to that is, I hope I’ve prevented us from doing some dumb things over the past 4-1/2 years.”
After overseeing two U.S. wars, Gates issued a warning to future military leaders in a speech to West Point cadets earlier this year, saying:
“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it… The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq — invading, pacifying, and administering a large third-world country — may be low.”
As Gates leaves public life, CIA Director Leon Panetta will be replacing him as Defense Secretary.