U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) LL.D. ’06 was a late addition to Thursday night’s “Crucibles of Leadership: U.S. Foreign Policy Past, Present and Future” discussion at the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. The end of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial freed up time on Kaine’s calendar to join William & Mary Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 on the stage for an hour-long talk.
“I finished jury duty,” Kaine quipped.
Kaine and Gates, a former U.S. secretary of defense and CIA director, spoke about their personal journeys as public servants, learning from the past to shape present-day foreign policy and the future of U.S. leadership in a rapidly changing world. Samantha Custer, director of policy analysis for AidData at W&M’s Global Research Institute, moderated the discussion. William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe introduced the talk.
Trump’s impeachment trial was also one of the topics discussed before a crowd that included W&M students, faculty, staff, alumni and local residents. The Senate acquitted Trump on Wednesday of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress.
“This was a process pursuant to a Constitution that was carried out in my view, unfairly, with not a lot of witnesses and documents for the first time in the impeachment history of the United States,” said Kaine, who served as Virginia’s lieutenant governor from 2002 to 2006 and governor from 2006 to 2010. “Nevertheless, we went through a process; we had a vote; there were not two-thirds votes to convict, and thus the president was acquitted.”
Kaine, who joined Hillary Clinton in 2016 and ran for vice president on the ticket opposite Trump, spoke of founding fathers James Madison, George Mason and Alexander Hamilton, who pushed to include the impeachment clause in the Constitution. Trump was the third U.S. president to be impeached, joining Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 with the prospect of impeachment looming.
“The examples that they talked about a lot were, what if somebody gets elected and tries to use the powers of the president to guarantee their reelection? That was one of the things they were concerned about,” Kaine said. “And a second one they talked about a lot was, what if somebody, when they are elected, tries to get help from a foreign government or is beholden to a foreign government? This issue of foreign influence was right at the core of why the impeachment clause is in the Constitution.”
Gates joined the National Security Council under former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft in April of 1974, mere months before Nixon resigned.
“I like to say Scowcroft signed me up for the NSC as a deckhand on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg,” Gates said.
“I think we were very fortunate in the last six to eight months of the Nixon administration to have Alexander Haig as chief of staff of the White House, and for all practical purposes, for I would say the last six, eight months of the Nixon administration, Alexander Haig was president of the United States,” Gates added. “Haig was basically running the country.”
With the 2020 presidential election approaching, Gates was asked to handicap the field of candidates. He backed away from that but offered insight into the qualities that would make the best president.
“In 1933 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was asked what he thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he said he has a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament,” he said. “And if you look at our greatest presidents in my view, (George) Washington, (Abraham) Lincoln, (Franklin) Roosevelt, (Harry) Truman, (Dwight) Eisenhower, (Ronald) Reagan, they all had first class temperaments. They all were willing to surround themselves with people they thought were smarter than they were because they were so comfortable in their own skin, that they sought the advice of smart people and then would integrate it into their own views as they made decisions.”
Gates served under eight presidents, and he is the only Secretary of Defense to have served under presidents from different political parties.
He was particularly fond of President George H.W. Bush, who he said treated everyone with respect and dignity.
“He would engage the landscapers on the White House lawn in the same way about their families and how they were doing and so on as he would engage his cabinet secretaries,” Gates said. “He had served briefly in the House of Representatives, but he made friends in the house in both parties that he never forgot. He also taught me how to drink vodka martinis, an enormous contribution to peace in the Pentagon.”
The headline topic of the discussion was foreign policy. Both Gates and Kaine agree it’s imperative the United States works to resolve its problems domestically if it hopes to succeed in its relationships with other countries.
“I think that the most important challenge for our country today, national security and more broadly, actually can be found within two or three square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol building,” Gates said. “Because the truth is, if we can’t get past the current paralysis to tackle some of the big problems facing our country, whether it's immigration or education, enormous deficits, infrastructure and so on, there's really no foreign threat that poses as great a danger for our future in my view.”
Kaine said weakening alliances are weakening our national security posture.“I don’t disagree with Bob that our own internal dysfunction is key, maybe the key challenge we have right now,” Kaine said. “But I would say the biggest national security challenge or opportunity is we have a strategic edge over both our competitors (in China and Russia) with a network of alliances that they don’t have and they’re not going to have for a while. We shouldn’t weaken those. We should strengthen them.”