Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Republican Star of the Obama Cabinet

Eyebrows were raised when he was asked to stay on, but defense secretary is earning his keep.

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To the surprise of the liberal supporters of President Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is a star in his cabinet.

As one of only two Republicans in the hierarchy of the Obama administration, and a holdover from the controversial Bush-Cheney days, Gates has been a steady and valued member of the national security team.

Some eyebrows were raised by Democrats when Gates was chosen. But he has made perfect sense as a transitional leader in two ongoing wars and has been a real listener to his commanders.

Of course, many will argue that he is merely the un-Rumsfeld, a welcome relief from Donald Rumsfeld's headstrong methods at the Pentagon. When Rumsfeld left, with a push from President Bush, Gates answered the call to service. He left a cushy job as president of Texas A&M University to take the job.

It was never pinned down, but most believe it was Bush's father who urged him to bring Gates to Washington. Bush 41's presidential library is at Texas A&M and the two have had connections for many years.

On Capital Hill, where Rumsfeld's manner always grated on Democrats, Gates has been a welcome relief. He does not lecture or look down his nose at questioners. (Rumsfeld, to be fair, should be credited for being an outstanding White House chief of staff when Gerald Ford was president. Rumsfeld returned from his post as NATO ambassador to quickly remove the remainder of Richard Nixon's staff to give Ford his own team.)

In recent days, Gates has taken on a new mission. His budget submitted to Congress calls for a more streamlined defense and an end to unreliable and dated weapons systems, such as the expensive F-22 aircraft, and the overpriced helicopters for use of the president.

Gates said he hoped his budget would avoid the parochial interests in Congress for the common good. He must have known the cries of foul would come from Republicans as well as Democrats who have defense facilities in their districts.

For example, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, said the Gates budget was putting our defense at risk. He neglected to say that more money was going to the troops who need it most of all. Those on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as disturbed veterans coming home after extended tours, are more important.

There was a bump in Gates's career as a public servant. As deputy director of the CIA during the Iran-contra scandal in the Reagan administration, he was accused on Capital Hill of having a memory loss on how illegal arms got to the contras in Nicaragua. Gates withdrew his name as nominee to head the CIA as Democrats complained about his role.

But that episode should not detract from Gates' current service under two presidents.

A New York Times editorial in recent days praised the Gates budget, but said it was only a start for what needed to be done.

It would seem to me an outstanding start for one who could have stayed on in College Station as president of the Texas Aggies.

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