On Thursday, Robert Gates will step down as defense secretary — a position he held for more than four years, overseeing two wars. He's the only person to hold the job under two presidents from different parties.
For the past two years, he's attained a kind of "wise man" status within the Obama administration. While he makes weekly visits to the White House, he has also spent a great deal of time in khakis and a baseball cap out in the field with men and women in uniform.
Whenever Gates visits troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he looks them in the eye and takes responsibility for sending them into combat. He told soldiers in Baghdad: "This is kinda personal for me. I'm the guy who signed the orders that sent you here."
And in northern Iraq, he told them: "For the last four-and-a-half years, I'm the guy who has signed the paper that sent every single soldier, sailor, marine and airman in harm's way."
And in Afghanistan earlier this month, he said this: "More than anybody except the president, I'm responsible for you being here. And that weights on me everyday."
There's a heavy sense of accountability there. It's almost paternal — a message that no matter the challenge you face, someone has your back. Gates has been that someone for the troops under his command and the president he serves.
Credibility For The President
President Barack Obama came into office pushing to end the war in Iraq and double down on what he called "the right war" in Afghanistan. He was untested as a commander in chief and needed national security credibility; Gates helped give him that.
"I am confident Bob Gates will be remembered as one of the finest defense secretaries in American history and I will always be grateful for his service," the president said in a speech in April.
Richard Armitage, a deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell, has known Gates for close to 30 years — they met when Gates was the deputy director of the CIA and Armitage was at the Pentagon. He says this president flat out needed Gates.
"There was a great deal of confidence in the foreign policy area as long as Bob Gates was involved, and this, I think, benefited the president a huge amount," Armitage said. "The fact that we were in the middle of two wars, now almost three, and you had a steady hand at the helm is something that must have comforted our president, as it comforted the nation."
Gates gave the president political cover when he needed it. He stood up for the president's decision to wind down the war in Iraq, and to repeal don't ask, don't tell — the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
And on Afghanistan, when Obama was accused by Republicans of taking too long to figure out his war strategy — "dithering," even — Secretary Gates was there to defend him.
"We need to understand that the decisions that the president faces on Afghanistan are some of the most important he may face in his presidency about how we go forward there," Gates said at a Pentagon briefing in 2009. "And this is a situation in which I think this decision process should not be rushed."
A Straight Talker
Gates served eight presidents, both Republicans and Democrats. He's been at the center of power for more than three decades.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was the National Security Adviser for President Jimmy Carter, and he hired Gates in 1977.
"He is a kind of calmly self-assured person and probably isn't swayed either by the emotions or the consensus of the moment," Brzezinski says.
That may be why Gates is such a straight talker. In 2006, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) asked him a direct question and he got a direct answer.
"Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq," Levin asked.
"No sir," Gates answered.
This past February during a speech at West Point, Gates offered another straight shot: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army to Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.
And in the run up to the NATO attack on Libya this spring, "There's a lot of frankly loose talk and some of these military options, and let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya," Gates said.
Up until this point, the president and his secretary of defense had been on the same page on the big issues. The debate over Libya signaled a shift in the dynamic between the two. Gates came down on one side of the issue, and the president went in a different direction, going ahead with the Libya operation.
It happened again in the run up to the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. Officials close to Gates say he gave the president a different option: a missile attack that wouldn't be nearly as risky for U.S. troops.
Obama listened to his defense secretary, and in the end went his own way. Now, Robert Gates is getting ready to go his.
Secretary Gates is planning to move back to his lakeside home in Washington state, where he'll write a book about his time leading the U.S. military — which is likely to include at least a few chapters on the war in Iraq.
Thanking Troops For Their Service
Gates has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan more than two dozen times as secretary of defense, always on a specially equipped 747.
On the plane, there are sleeping quarters for the crew, a kitchen that churns out a lot of beef brisket (the secretary's favorite) and a big operations center in the middle of the plane where the crew and Pentagon staff work.
The plane is designed to be a full service command and control center. Some of the crew call it the doomsday plane, but most of the time, the souped-up aircraft is just a way to get Gates from Point A to Point B.
On one trip, Gates was headed to Baghdad to visit U.S. troops. It was a familiar scene: men and women in uniform gathered around him, some standing, others kneeling or cross-legged.
They came in close to hear the secretary tell them again that he's got their back. When the talking was done, Gates made sure to shake everyone's hand, thanking them for their service.
Again, he made himself accountable to them, as he has with the presidents he has served. He's the one who sent them to war and he's also among those who grieve if they don't come home.
In 2007, Gates gave an emotional tribute to Doug Zembiec, a Marine major who was killed during combat operations in Baghdad. It is the kind of speech he would give many times over the next four years, and it spoke to how Gates measured his own success in this job: how well he took care of the troops he sent to war.
"Every evening, I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiec," Gates began. "For you and for me, they are not names on a press release or numbers updated on a website. They are our countries' sons and daughters. They are in a tradition of service that includes you and your forebearers back to the earliest days of the republic. God bless you, the Marine Corps, the men and women of our armed forces and the country we have all sworn to defend."