Late in 2007, a year into his tenure as George W. Bush's secretary of defense and just over a year before the end of Bush's second term as president, I asked Robert Gates if he'd thought of staying on in the next administration. Many Republicans and Democrats were hoping he would, seeing him as a moderate professional sweeping away the shambles left by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. But Gates seemed uninterested, even hostile to the notion. "The circumstances under which I would do that," he replied, "are inconceivable to me."
Over the next several months, he repeated the line to other inquiring journalists. He carried around a key chain with an electronic screen that counted down the number of days until he could leave Washington (a city he clearly disliked) and retire with his wife to their lakeside home in the Pacific Northwest.
And yet, when President-elect Barack Obama asked him to remain at the Defense Department's helm, Gates instantly agreed.
This summer, sitting in his spacious third-floor office in the Pentagon's E Ring, I asked him why. How was he persuaded to commit an "inconceivable" act? Gates confessed (and "confess" is the word he used) that his sighs of longing to leave in the months leading up to the 2008 election were part of a "covert action" to convince everyone that he didn't want to stay, in the hopes that nobody would ask him to. "I really didn't want to be asked," he said. But, he added, that was because all along he knew "that if I were asked, I would say, 'Yes.' In the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, 'No.'"
It's a revealing story about Gates: the old-school statesman who believes that party politics should stop at the water's edge and that it's unseemly to turn down a president, any president (he has worked for seven now, all of them since Richard Nixon except Bill Clinton); but also the canny inside player and career intelligence officer who knows how to manage perceptions. Although he's the only Bush holdover in Obama's cabinet (for that matter, the only defense secretary ever to keep the job after a party switch in the White House), Gates now has extraordinary influence on Obama. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, said in a phone interview that Gates is "an essential part of the team," adding, "The president trusts him implicitly."
Gates is a paradox in another sense: A self-described protector of institutions, he has also, in less than four years on the job, changed the way the Pentagon does business and the military fights wars more than any defense secretary since Robert McNamara.
But there's a haunting dimension to this comparison. In his first two-and-a-half years running the Pentagon for President John F. Kennedy, McNamara brought rational analysis to weapons procurement and shifted military planning from "massive retaliation" (with an emphasis on nuclear bombs) to "flexible response" (and a buildup of conventional defenses in Europe). Yet this side of his tenure is completely overshadowed by the disaster in Vietnam.
Only somewhat less dramatically, Gates has heralded a shift in military planning from the "major combat operations" anticipated in the Cold War to the "asymmetrical conflicts" against insurgents and rogue states that plague the 21st-century world. Yet Gates, too, understands that his legacy will be shaped much more by the outcome of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- wars that he did not initiate, and occasionally had doubts about continuing, but which he now undoubtedly and unhesitantly owns.