Did Obama screw up by picking Gates?

Olivier Knox
President Barack Obama (L) walks with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (R) from the Oval Office to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House February 27, 2009 in Washington, DC. President Obama is traveling to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to announce his plans for eventual removal of troops from Iraq. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Is the lesson of Robert Gates’ buzzy memoir that President Barack Obama shouldn’t have picked a Republican as his first defense secretary? No.

A lot of the frowny faced early responses to Gates’ “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” have tut-tutted earnestly that his sometimes punishing disclosures will kill off the tradition, such as it is, of picking someone from the opposing party for a job that important.

But that’s nonsense.

For one thing, fellow party members can do just as much damage. You may as well argue that presidents aren’t going to hire big-time American corporate executives, former governors of Pennsylvania, or longtime loyal aides for important positions.

That’s what former President George W. Bush’s experience with books from (or starring) former ALCOA chief Paul O’Neill, Tom Ridge and ex-press secretary Scott McClellan would suggest. Recollections from those fellow Republicans hurt Bush’s standing on economic policy, homeland security and the selling of the war in Iraq.

And “Duty” is hardly the first damaging disclosure in print for this president, either. Or has the world already forgotten the disclosures by Democratic former Obama aides in “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President”? (Well, OK, the world has forgotten, but current and former White House officials to this day still point to former Obama aide Peter Orszag as something of a traitor.)

Revelations from disappointed loyalists are almost always worse for a president because of the impression that they are more authentic. But that doesn’t mean they last longer in the public memory.

Anyone recall Larry Speakes, former chief spokesman for Ronald Reagan? Speakes dropped a headline-grabbing bombshell in his 1988 memoir, “Speaking Out,” revealing that he had totally made up quotes that he attributed to the Gipper for the benefit of reporters. He was renounced and exiled from Reaganworld, banished to obscurity.

Another problem with the theory that future presidents won’t bring on members of the opposing party is that doing so can serve their policy ends. Obama came into office looking to pull America out of Iraq. Who better to help him wind down one of Bush’s signature policy initiatives than Bush’s last defense secretary, a man widely seen as one of the most knowledgeable and respected public servants of his generation?

(And what about Republican former Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois? He served, by all accounts loyally and capably, as Obama’s transportation secretary, often clashing with his former comrades in Congress. No word on whether he'll dish about his experience.)

Finally, there’s the meat of Gates’ complaints. Sure, he may damage Hillary Clinton’s 2016 prospects by praising her as forcefully supportive of national security policies the Democratic Party’s liberal base utterly hates. Relaying a conversation in which she describes her opposition to the troop “surge” in Iraq as cynically motivated by politics won’t help her either.

And by dismissing Vice President Joe Biden as perpetually wrong on foreign policy, Gates is recycling a charge regularly made by Republican national security-types.

But most of the criticisms that have been reported thus far sound a lot more like institutional (and longstanding) Pentagon complaints: The White House micromanages national security! Obama mistrusted military commanders! The president is discussing military options without us! These are totally serious, substantive grievances, but they smack more of classic Pentagon get-off-my-lawn-ism than partisan backstabbing.

The Gates book is not the last memoir Obama will have to contend with: Hillary Clinton is reportedly due to publish her own account of his tumultuous first term.

And Gates — who reportedly kept a countdown clock in his briefcase, ticking down the time until he could be a civilian again — is not likely to be the last cross-party appointment.