President Obama earned some civility points yesterday by refusing to fire back at Robert Gates after the former secretary of defense disparaged aspects of his leadership style as well as taking shots at Vice President Biden and Hillary Clinton in his new memoir. While Obama admitted he was “irked” by the timing of the publication of the book, he praised the former secretary as an “outstanding” cabinet member and friend. Though Democrats were blasting Gates for writing a book that was mined for negative quotes about their two leading presidential contenders in 2016, even a Republican like John McCain said that he should have waited until the administration he served was out of office before writing a memoir.
Gates’s critics may have a point about Washington etiquette, though few liberals protested when Scott McClellan, who had served as George W. Bush’s press secretary, penned a tell-all memoir that blasted his boss and his policies. The notion that there should be a waiting period before those who serve in government can write books seems to be more about good manners than ethics. But despite the nasty nature of some of the exchanges between Gates and administration defenders, the president was right to tread softly on the issue. Though some of the book doesn’t do much to make the president and his colleagues look good on some points, by waiting until Obama was safely reelected before coming clean about Obama’s war leadership, Gates did his former boss a huge favor and the voters a disservice.
Gates’s pious disclaimers about the book controversy being created by sensationalist journalists skimming quotes are patently insincere. Those quotes were highlighted by his publisher and distributed to the press precisely in order to create buzz about the book and increase sales. To that end, they have succeeded brilliantly. The Gates book became a huge political story and though it was quickly overshadowed by Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal, the former secretary’s publishers are crying all the way to the bank over all the free publicity they have received. Had Gates waited until Obama was safely out of office, there wouldn’t be much buzz about the book. Nor would his sales be as great.
But Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has a far more salient point when he noted that if there is any criticism to be made about Gates, it is that he waited too long to tell the American people about the cynicism of the president toward the armed forces and the truth about both Obama and Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the Iraq troop surge. There appears to be much in the book that would have fueled an important discussion about the president’s conduct during his reelection campaign. Had Gates spoken up during 2012 about the nature of the administration’s decision-making process about the Afghanistan war and other behind-the-scenes details, it would have negatively affected the president’s chances for a second term. While it is doubtful that any book, no matter how much it dishes on Biden and Clinton, will affect the 2016 contest, his Cabinet colleagues will suffer far more than Obama as result of Gates’s indiscretions.
As such, President Obama is probably right to ease up on Gates (who has accurately noted that he was more critical of the president’s aides than of the commander in chief) whose decision to keep quiet this long did him as much good as anything he did while at the Pentagon.