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May 23, 2007

Gates Encourages Public Service

Kevin E. Dayhoff

In his keynote graduation address Sunday, U. S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates challenged the 2007 graduates of the College of William and Mary to serve the greater good of the nation by voting, volunteering, and participating in public service.

He set the tone of his remarks by saying: "When talking about American democracy, we hear a great deal about freedoms and rights, and more recently, about the entitlements of citizenship. We hear a good deal less about the duties and responsibilities of being an American."

Secretary Gates, who took office last December as the nation's 22nd defense secretary, acknowledged that after serving in public life for more than 40 years "no one is more familiar with the hassles, frustrations, and sacrifices of public service than I am. Government is, by design of the Founding Fathers, slow, unwieldy and almost comically inefficient. Will Rogers used to say: 'I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.' "

Nevertheless, the quiet yet authoritative voice of Secretary Gates, who was born September 25, 1943, in Wichita, KS, resonated as he took the graduates back to 1961 when he began his studies at William and Mary. He graduated four years later with a degree in history.

Of the influences on his life from his days at William and Mary, he nostalgically recalled: "Many a night, late, I'd walk down Duke of Gloucester Street from the Wren Building to the Capitol. On those walks in the dark I felt the spirit of the patriots who created a free and independent country, who helped birth it right here in Williamsburg. It was on those walks that I made my commitment to public service."

Calm and unassuming, the still waters run deep for Secretary Gates. An Eagle Scout in his youth, he started early in his lifetime commitment to public service. While attending William and Mary, he was active in a service-organization, Alpha Phi Omega, serving as its president during his senior year.

While at the college he was also active in the "Young Republicans" and as the business manager of the William and Mary Review, a literary and art magazine.

When Secretary Gates graduated, he received the "Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award" given at graduation to honor an individual who displayed characteristics of heart, mind, and helpfulness to others.

He continued his studies by earning his master's degree in history from Indiana University and his doctorate in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University.

After receiving his undergraduate degree, Secretary Gates joined the CIA in 1966, where he began a total of nearly three decades in the intelligence industry in which he served four presidents.

One of several reasons he commands the bi-partisan respect of the intelligence and national defense community is the fact that he is the only intelligence professional to have become director of the CIA - from 1991 to 1993 - who entered the agency as an entry-level employee. He also served as deputy director from 1986 to 1989. He served President George H. W. Bush from January 1989 to November 1991 as an Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor.

Secretary Gates himself said, ". in terms of my (recent) timing in taking on the responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense, it reminds me of a story told long ago by Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, who spoke of having seen a bull that charged a locomotive. He said, 'You know that was the bravest bull I ever saw, but I can't say much for his judgment.' "

The nomination of Secretary Gates, who had served on the "Iraq Study Group" and as president of Texas A&M University since August 1, 2002, came as an early test for the Democratic Party, which had reclaimed a majority in Congress in last November's election.

Conventional wisdom is that it was precisely the calls for a different plan and direction for the war in Iraq that was the deciding factor in the election and less than 24 hours after the election, the president was making a change.

But shortly after President Bush nominated Secretary Gates, the bi-partisan accolades poured in quickly and his nomination was unanimously approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on December 5 and by the full U.S. Senate the next day.

Many on both sides of the aisle could have not been happier.

Tackling the daunting task of defense secretary is clearly an example of what Secretary Gates pointed out in his commencement address Sunday when he noted that John Adams wrote - in a letter to one his sons: "Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not."

Secretary Gates drove home the point by saying: "This country will only progress as a democracy if its citizens - young and old alike - take an active role in its political life as well."

In encouraging the younger adults in the audience to participate and vote, he suggested that if they are unhappy with leaders, then they should go out and elect different ones or run for office themselves. "But you must participate, or else the decisions that affect your life and the future of our country will be made for you - and without you.

"It is precisely during these trying times that America most needs its best and brightest young people, from all walks of life, to step forward and commit to public service."

As his voice cracked with emotion, Secretary Gates concluded by asking the Class of 2007, "Will the wise and the honest among you come help us serve the American people?"

We're counting on it. We could use a few more Robert Gates in future leadership positions.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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