Further, being a tough manager means being able to fire military and civilian leaders who perform badly or inappropriately. Cheney fired Michael Duggan, the Air Force Chief of Staff on the eve of the first Persian Gulf War for inappropriate remarks he made on a trip back from the region. McNamara canned George Anderson, the chief of naval operations who attempted to ignore the president's guidance on the blockade during the Cuban missile crisis. And Gates fired the Air Force chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force for failing to keep our nuclear weapons under tight control.
Weinberger, on the other hand, allowed the civilian leadership of the Navy to undermine his efforts to create a Unified Transportation Command without firing them.
Third, the secretary of defense must have the political skills and willingness to work with Congress and get the administration's agenda adopted, particularly its annual budget. Being a former representative like Laird and Cheney helped them deal successfully with a Congress controlled by the opposite party. At least in his first couple of years in office, McNamara's knowledge of the workings of the Pentagon simply overwhelmed Congress. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, even though he had been a member, treated Congress with disdain and he found it harder and harder to get support for the Bush agenda.
Finally, the person selected for the job must agree to serve for a full presidential term but no more. If there is a perception that the secretary might be a short-timer, the bureaucracy will simply slow walk his efforts, as they did with Gates's heralded efficiency initiatives. On the other hand, all those secretaries who stayed until a president's second term did not leave with their reputations intact.
Had McNamara left in 1965, after Johnson's election, he would be remembered as the first secretary to have successfully managed the Pentagon, rather than the author of a failed policy in Vietnam. Similarly, if Weinberger had left after Reagan's first term, he would have been remembered as the person who cured the hollow military rather than the person who resisted Reagan's arms control deals with Gorbachev and paid $600 for toilet seats. Even Rumsfeld's reputation would be better if he had left after Bush's first term rather than having been forced out after the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006 and he became the poster boy for the poorly managed war in Iraq.
Hopefully the next secretary will have Laird's political savvy, McNamara's management skills, and a history of military service.
If, as expected, President Obama selects Chuck Hagel to be secretary, he will bring as much to the table as his most distinguished predecessors. As a former senator, Hagel certainly possesses the political skill to be an effective advocate for the Obama administration's agenda and the progress it has made on military issues. A wounded combat veteran, Hagel would be one of the few enlisted people to rise to the rank of secretary of defense. Given his experience supporting military families as president and CEO of the United Service Organizations as well as his status as a decorated Vietnam veteran, Hagel has the credentials to work with military leaders and Congress to address all of the challenges facing the Pentagon. Further, his experience in business would be invaluable in guiding the Department of Defense -- the world's largest employer -- as it adapts to an era of limited budgets.