Robert Gates Wins a Prestigous New Award, So We Revisit His Memorable Richmond Forum Appearance. [BOOK EXCERPT]

“Oh, geez. This is a family audience, right?” Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at The Richmond Forum in January 2012.
(Photograph courtesy The Richmond Forum)

FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE Robert M. Gates was given the first-ever Zbigniew Brzezinski Annual Prize and Lecture yesterday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Why Gates? CSIS says the prize aims to promote “the importance of geostrategic thinking with a transcending moral purpose.” Gates, who has served in the administrations of eight of the past nine U.S. presidents, is known for his straight-shooting, non-partisan approach. “I can think of no better inaugural recipient than Bob Gates,’ CSIS president and CEO John J. Hamre said.

Gates brought that approach to The Richmond Forum, as reflected in the new book, The Forum Files, excerpted here:

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Often enough, genuine insight into the speaker comes through the audience questions.

Perhaps no answer is remembered more than that of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who appeared in January 2012. W. Taylor Reveley III, president of The College of William & Mary, moderated the Q&A and put to Gates a question submitted by a subscriber named “Marybeth”: What one word or phrase would you use to describe each of the eight presidents for whom you’ve served?

“Oh, geez. This is a family audience, right?” Gates said, laughing.

But Gates was game. He took on Marybeth’s question, his assessments revealing more insight—and no doubt honesty—than many may have expected:

On Lyndon B. Johnson: “Tragic. He wanted to do so much domestically and couldn’t extract himself from his fear of taking the country out of Vietnam.”

On Richard M. Nixon. “Probably our strangest president. I’ll leave it at that.”

On Gerald R. Ford: “Vastly underestimated. A man of extraordinary courage and intelligence.”

On Jimmy Carter: “Couldn’t figure out what his priorities were. Tried to do too much and, therefore, accomplished relatively little.”

On Ronald Reagan: “I think one of our greatest presidents. … Ronald Reagan restored the confidence in the American people and confidence in the American dream.”

On George H.W. Bush: “Again, vastly underestimated.”

On George W. Bush: “Confident. A man of strong convictions and confident in those convictions.”

On Barack Obama: “Far more courageous than anybody would have expected when he was elected.” Gates called Obama’s decision to launch the attack that killed Osama bin Laden “one of the gutsiest calls I have ever seen a president make” and his decision to approve the politically unpopular military surge in Afghanistan very courageous.

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Gates drew a standing ovation from The Richmond Forum patrons. His audience rating still stands as the highest given any speaker this century.

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