Magazine article The American Conservative

Operation Rescue

Magazine article The American Conservative

Operation Rescue

Article excerpt

In bringing back Robert Gates, Bush recalls the wisdom of his elders.

COLLEGE STATION, home to Texas A&M University, is a pleasant place-at least for nine months of the year. Though George H.W. Bush's presidential library is here, after that it's hard to be farther out of the Beltway loop. In most people's eyes, this is the political wilderness, yet an out of the way town in East Central Texas just became Robert M. Gates's stepping stone to George W. Bush's cabinet.

This image of the presumptive defense secretary languishing in the wilderness can be easily overdrawn. Bob and his wife Becky have a beautiful place on Orcas Island at the confluence of the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca to which they escape the summer climes of the Lone Star State. Bob also serves on various corporate boards-he was recently named chair of Fidelity's-that regularly meet in more cosmopolitan environs. And even here in the Brazos Valley he never completely escaped the Beltway's gravitational pull. Along with former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bob co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations study group on Iran in 2004 and was until recently a member of former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton's Iraq Study Group.

Now he returns to Washington for what may be the most difficult assignment of his career: salvaging the wreckage of one war and averting another-while the president who once boasted of his political capital surveys a lost majority. But both experience and temperament outfit Gates well. Unlike the neoconservatives who populated Rumsfeld's Pentagon, he is a pragmatist, who won't soon indulge their utopian schemes. And unlike his predecessor, Gates's time in government, and more recently here at Texas A&M, reveals a thoughtful consensus-builder prone to take a dim view of unilateralism.

Gates came to College Station in 1999 at the behest of former President Bush to serve as interim dean of the newly established George Bush School of Government and Public Service. At the time, the Bush School was a small program in the College of Liberal Arts. But current Katrina relief czar Don Powell, then the chair of the Board of Regents, felt that it needed to be a stand-alone college, and Gov. George W. Bush and the Texas legislature provided financial wherewithal.

The divorce from the College of Liberal Arts was difficult-some of the estranged parties still do not speak-but Gates successfully guided the Bush School from program to college. "Bob's great contribution," someone close to the process told me, "was taking something that could be very prickly with the faculty and making it into a seamless and smooth transition." Once a permanent dean was selected in the fall of 2001, Bob literally rode off into the sunset toward the Pacific Northwest, seemingly shaking the dust of College Station from his Bass Weejuns.

But scarcely a year later, when Texas A&M President Ray Bowen announced his intention to step down, Powell and other notables encouraged Gates to throw his hat into the ring. At first Bob was reluctant, but after 9/11 and one last call from Powell in December 2001, he told me that he felt he "needed to do one more public service and couldn't think of anyplace [he] would rather do it than A&M." With the backing of George Bush Foundation chair Brent Scowcroft, he squared off against Phil Gramm for the position. Gramm, a former Texas A&M economics professor and U.S. congressman and senator, had substantial support among the regents. But by a very close vote Gates prevailed and became TAMU's 22nd president. He quickly got past the Gramm fight and won over many skeptics who did not think that a former CIA director could be an effective university president or that a non-Aggie could lead A&M.

Three early moves highlighted Gates's bureaucratic skill and political acumen. He acted quickly to clean up the legal mess resulting from a 1999 campus accident. …

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