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Charter Day remarks by Chancellor Robert M. Gates '65

  • Chancellor Gates
    Chancellor Gates  Robert M. Gates '65, former Secretary of Defense, was installed Feb. 3 as the 24th Chancellor of the College of William & Mary in Virginia.  Phot by Stephen Salpukas
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The following are prepared remarks by William & Mary Chancellor and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates ’65 during the College’s 2012 Charter Day Ceremony. - Ed


I am honored to have been selected -- and now installed -- as 24th Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, my alma mater.  I am grateful to the Board of Visitors for their confidence. I look forward to working with President Reveley, who I’m sure is relieved to have a Chancellor who lives even farther away than Justice O’connor, thus further reducing  any temptation to forget one’s proper role.

Before this event I had a chance to spend some time with Professor Bill, who will be  honored.  The William & Mary community knows James Bill as a beloved teacher and scholar. In the foreign policy world he is known as one of the pre-eminent experts on the Middle East, Iran in particular.  As I told Dr. Bill earlier today, if the U.S. government had paid more attention to what he was saying and writing back in the 1970s, our country -- and the world -- could have been spared a lot of trouble then, and now.

I must confess that when I first started thinking about life after the Pentagon, my intention was to avoid getting tangled up in anything other than relaxing, writing my book, and giving the occasional speech -- not necessarily in that order.

That was still my attitude when President Reveley first approached me on behalf of the Board of Visitors about potentially becoming the next chancellor of this historic college.  Then I thought about this great institution, what it has meant to me personally and its special place in the history of our country.  I then reflected on the kind of people who had held this post over the past four centuries.  The decision to become your next chancellor became very easy very fast.

Of course, I had no idea then about the Chancellor’s regalia- a sort of unique blending of medieval academic tradition and Lady Gaga, or perhaps Mr. T.

I notice that the charter of 1693 called for a Chancellor who was quote “eminent and discreet,” reflecting that most of the earliest chancellors were Archbishops of Canterbury. As compared to some of the world historical figures who served in this position, I’m well behind the curve in the eminence department.  But when it comes to discretion you’ve got the right guy.  I definitely know how to keep a secret.

I have been fortunate to have worked with the last three Chancellors in various capacities over the past 40 years.

I was first detailed to Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff as a relatively junior staff officer in July 1974- not a particularly propitious moment to be joining the Nixon White House.   Henry cut quite an intimidating figure back then, a legend in his own time, and as he would be the first to admit, in his own mind as well.  Dr. Kissinger’s vast intellect and exploits when it came to world geo-politics did not spare him the occasional embarrassment.

For example, the time that President Nixon met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, shortly after Nixon had appointed Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State. Also in that meeting was Golda Meir’s very erudite foreign minister, Abba Eban, a graduate of Cambridge. At one point, Nixon turned to Golda Meir and said, “Just think, we now both have Jewish foreign ministers.” And without missing a beat Golda Meir said, “Yes, but mine speaks English.”

Some years later I crossed paths on a number of occasions with another of your recent chancellors, Margaret Thatcher.  Such as the time President H.W. Bush dispatched then Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and me to London.  Our unenviable task was to tell Prime Minister Thatcher about the pending reduction of U.S. military forces in Europe given the decline of the Soviet Union.  We made our presentation and she asked very hard and difficult questions. After the session was over she put an arm around each of our shoulders and said “You know, you two are always welcome here as long as I am Prime Minister.  But never again on this subject.”  In telephone conversations with President Bush she later referred to Eagleburger and me as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.  I always claimed to be Tweedle Dee.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor administered my oath of office as Director of Central Intelligence in 1991.  But I didn’t get to know her well until 2006, when we served together on the Baker-Hamilton Iraq study group established to help right our troubled war effort in Iraq.  I was struck at the time that even though Justice O’Connor had less direct national security experience than most of the group, she probably asked the best questions and got the most useful answers. 

It is a tremendous honor not only to join such great figures as Chancellor, but also to be the first William & Mary alumnus to hold this post in “the modern era”- which, for William & Mary, could date back to the enlightenment. Indeed, the path from my first day here in August, 1961 as a 17-year-old freshman housed in the attic of Old Dominion Hall -- paying out of state tuition of $361 a semester -- to this occasion has been, shall we say, an intersting one.  I should note at this point the presence here today of the person most singularly responsible for pursuading me to come to William & Mary in 1961, Mr. Dan Landis, Class of ’63, an old friend from Kansas who beat me here by two years. 

My beginnings here were not auspicious.  Such as the “D” in freshman calculus.  My father called long distance -- a  big deal in 1961 -- and said, “Tell me about the “D”.  I said, “Dad, the “D” was a gift.”  Or taking first year Russian here at the College from a young woman lecturer from Alabama, giving my already poor Russian accent a decidedly southern U.S. lilt.

Most of my time here as a student, I drove a school bus for the Williamsburg-James City County Schools.  I parked the bus behind Bryan Dorm -- a source of many adventures, most not repeatable in polite company.  One morning, I went out to start the bus and it had snowed about two inches.  Growing up in Kansas, I thought nothing of it, scraped off the windshield and drove to my first stop where I would pick up the son of the head of the government department.  He wasn’t out at the stop, so I honked the horn.  The professor came out in galoshes and a bathrobe and asked what I was doing.  I said I’m here to pick up your son.  He replied, there’s no school today.  I asked why, and he responded, “Because the school buses can't get out.”

I recall that during my freshman year our nights were punctuated by loud explosions and accompanying tremors from nearby Camp Peary.  We would curse the U.S. Navy in the saltiest terms for our loss of sleep.  Only years later would I learn that we had blamed the wrong part of the U.S. government for the noise.  So, I much later could state truthfully that the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency began keeping me awake at night long before I became a senior official there.

Ever since first walking these grounds as an undergraduate, I have been fascinated and inspired by the role this small corner of our country has played in shaping the identity and political ethos of the United States of America; in particular, the traditions of law and liberty brought over from England to Jamestown -- traditions later given new force and meaning in places like Williamsburg and Philadelphia, before being enshrined in the governing institutions of our country and spreading ultimately throughout the world.

Indeed, so much of what defines America first took root here in Virginia along the banks of the James River. Jamestown saw the New World’s first representative assembly.  In those tough early days getting the people’s business done was often a matter of sheer survival.  Of course, that did not stop the earliest American politicians from behaving like, well, politicians. The historian Richard Brookhiser wrote of Jamestown:  “Its leaders were always fighting … the typical 17th Century account argues that everything would have gone well if everyone besides the author had not done wrong.” Sounds like a typical D.C. memoir.

Yet, whatever the divisions, the continued survival and progress of this and other fragile communities in the New World would depend on finding ways to overcome differences.   

This balance, this calibration of principle and compromise was a feature of the early history of the Commonwealth of Virgnina and the key to the founding and ultimate success of our republic.  Bold and compelling statements of principle are found in documents such as Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which informed America’s Declaration of Independence, and Virginia’s Declaration of Religious Freedom, which pre-figured the establishment clause of the First Amendment. 

The core principles behind these declarations were turned into enduring structures of governance largely through deliberation and compromise; the “Virginia Plan,” for example, a compromise presented at our Constitutional Convention, sought to balance the interests of small and large states in a bicameral legislature.

I recount this history not for its own sake, but because I believe that the example of the Founding Fathers -- who stood on principle wherever they could, yet compromised when needed for the greater good --  has important lessons for today.

It is a lesson too many of today's politicians have failed to understand in an age of zero-sum politics and scorched earth ideological warfare.  Values such as civility, mutual respect, putting country before self, and country before party are now seen to be increasingly quaint, historic relics to be put on display at the Smithsonian, perhaps next to Mr. Rogers’ sweater or Julia Child’s kitchen.

The rancor of today’s politics is not new to American history.  In a speech here I once warned that “Public life has become too mean, too ugly, too risky, too dangerous, and too frustrating for too many.”  That was 14 years ago.  Truth to tell, American politics was a contact sport from the very beginning -- and a dirty one at that.  The same Founding Fathers we revere today tore each other apart in the press or behind closed doors.

 John Adams was called a “hideous hermaphroditical character [who] has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”  Thomas Jefferson’s sex life was fodder for gossips and pamphleteers.  Our first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, was killed in a duel following a political dispute. 

So the vitriol and nastiness are nothing new.  Nor is the failure of our political system to deal with issues that divide the country along ideological, cultural, or regional lines -- just think of the years leading up to the Civil War.  In more recent decades, crises such as Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and an impeachment all convulsed the American political system.  In each case, however painful and divisive these episodes were, our governing institutions recovered their equilibrium and ability to function -- at least for a period of time.

Having said all that, I do believe that we are now in uncharted territory when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system. It appears that as a result of several polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing this country.

Modern politicians make easy targets but these problems go much deeper than individual personalities.  The predicament we are in is the result of structural changes over several decades.  The reasons are varied:

  • The highly gerrymandered system of drawing congressional districts to create safe seats for incumbents both Democratic and Republican, leading to elected representatives totally beholden to their party’s most hard-core ideological base;
  • Wave elections that sweep one party into power after another, each seized with ideological zeal and the rightness of their agenda, making it difficult -- if not impossible time -- to sustain policies and programs consistently over time, as we did for 40 years to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War; and as will be necessary to address our very real and very deep problems here at home.
  • The decline of congressional power brokers, particularly the committee chairmen, who might have been tough partisans, but were also people who could make deals and enforce those agreements on their caucus; and
  • A 24/7 digital media environment that provides a forum and wide dissemination for the most extreme and vitriolic views, leading I believe to a coarsening and dumbing-down of the public dialogue

As a result of these and other polarizing factors, the moderate center – the foundation of our political system – is not holding.  Moderation is now equated with lacking principles.  Compromise means “selling out.”  

Yet, our entire system of government has depended upon compromise.  As I mentioned earlier, the Constiution itself is a bundle of compromises.   Critical ideas and progress in our history have often come from thinkers and ideologues on both the left and the right.  But the law and policies that ultimately have implemented the best of those ideas have come from the vital political center. So just at the time this country needs more bi-partisan strategies and politics to deal with our most serious, long-term problems, most of the trends are pointing in the opposite direction.

I have worked for eight presidents and known many politicians in both parties over nearly five decades, and I never met one who had a monopoly on revealed truth.  At a time when our country faces deep obstacles at home and abroad, we have too many leaders whose outsized egos are coupled with undersized backbones; who think they alone have the right answers, who demonize those who think differently, and who refuse to listen and to take other points of view into account.

The good news for America, is that even though we have a lot of work to do, and enormous obstacles ahead of us, we also have the power and means to overcome them -- just as this country has overcome worse episodes in the past.  It will take a willingness to make tough decisions, the clear-eyed realism to see the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be, the willingness to listen and to learn from one another, an ability to see and understand other points of view, and the wisdom to calibrate principle and compromise for the greater good of our country.

These qualities comprise the history and the essence of William & Mary experience, in and out of the classroom.  It was at this college that I first was exposed to such an environment and grounded in what I learned here, I have spent a life in public service.

In the great and urgent endeavors that lie before us, I have no doubt that the graduates and scholars of William & Mary -- this community of learning, listening and working through issues-- rooted in the original soil and the basic principles of American liberty, have a special role, and a special obligation, to be part of the solution: as leaders, as public servants, as  citizens. As I enter this next, and last phase in my public life, I will be proud and honored to serve as Chancellor as you help right this nation’s course.

God bless you and may God bless this ancient College, this Commonwealth, and our country.  Thank you.