Robert Gates' "Duty"

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sits down with Rita Braver in his first television interview since the publication of his new book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War”
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sits... 13:48

Washington has been abuzz this past week over the new memoir by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Now  Secretary Gates speaks for himself in his first television interview about his book. Our Cover Story is reported by Rita Braver:

Robert Gates doesn't pull any punches about why he now lives in a town outside Seattle: "Well, other than the fact that it's the farthest place from Washington, D.C. …" he laughed.

But it wasn't all that long ago that he was Secretary of Defense -- the first person in history to hold the job under two presidents from two different parties.

And working for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Gates won bipartisan praise for his managerial skills, integrity and calm demeanor.

Yet, he says, in private he was often seething. 

"So why was I so angry all the time? Why did I want to leave all the time? . . . It's just because getting anything done in Washington was so damnably hard," he said.

After a week filled with leaks, excerpts, and pundits holding forth, it's clear that Gates' new memoir, "Duty," has caused a sensation, and will likely go down in history as one of the most candid assessments ever written by a former Cabinet official.

Take his view of the majority of Congress: "Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic Constitutional responsibilities, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical . . . too often putting self and reelection before country."

"I thought about that sentence a lot," Gates told Braver," and whether it was too strong. And I decided at the end of the day, that that's what I believe."

Gates, now 70, is a former CIA Director, who was serving as head of Texas A&M University when President Bush asked him to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense in November 2006.  

By then the president, he says, had concluded that things were going badly in Iraq, and Gates decided Congress needed to hear the truth.

When asked by Sen. Carl Levin during his Senate confirmation hearing, "Are we winning in Iraq?" Gates replied, "No, sir."

Gates credits President Bush with turning the U.S. effort around by ordering a surge of some 30,000 personnel -- an idea Gates says even he didn't support at first.

He had some other minor disagreements with Mr. Bush. But he was more likely to clash with Vice President Dick Cheney, who did seem to understand that his influence with Mr. Bush had waned.

"Actually, he was pretty good-humored about it," Gates laughed. "He would occasionally say, 'Look, I know I'm alone on this, but here is what I think …'"

Gates' study is filled with military mementos, such as a piece of an MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected vehicle), credited with saving countless lives and limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Gates had to fight his own war within the Pentagon to get the vehicles produced.

"It's bureaucratic inertia," he explained. "It's an unwillingness to spend money on a war that everybody expected to be over soon. But the key for me was that protecting these young men and women was foremost."

Gates became known as "the Soldiers Secretary." And yet, from everything he wrote in "Duty," "It doesn't sound like you really enjoyed being Secretary of Defense," said Braver.

"I didn't enjoy it," he replied. "There is nothing enjoyable about a job where you put men and women in harm's way for their country's sake."

Yet, in 2008, when newly-elected President Obama asked Gates (a Republican) to stay on, his answer was an unequivocal yes. "I felt it was my duty to those troops, and that didn't end with the Bush administration," he said.