On Robert Gates and his 'More Concerned Than Ever' Speech

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Last week I mentioned former SecDef Robert Gates's surprisingly blunt speech at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In it he said that the United States government, in which he had served almost nonstop since the 1960s, has apparently "lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country."  This from a man not known for hyperbole.

A number of reactions, supportive and otherwise.

First, from Mike Lofgren, who got attention around the world last month for arguing, after his own nearly 30 years of service as a Republican staff member on Capitol Hill, that today's Republican party was "becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult." Lofgren writes:

I'm not much of a Gates fan - his deliberate threat inflation as Bill Casey's CIA apparatchik is fairly well-known; his increase of Obama's DOD budget to a point well above the levels projected in the last Bush budget is one of those Washington secrets that hides in plain sight.

So for someone like that to comment on political dysfunction may be even more of a bellwether than you suggested. Still, no one of his stripe is likely to attribute causes to the phenomenon beyond some ritual cant about partisanship and polarization. The dysfunction actually is in the rational self-interest of a number of groups who know exactly what they are doing.

In the same vein, from Joseph Britt, another former Republican Senate staffer (and like Gates a graduate of William and Mary):

I read former Sec. Gates' speech in Philadelphia.  I noted he named no names.  That might explain why he got no press.
 
American government's problems are the result of "trends" in American society, according to Gates.  He said this about redistricting, that about the media, and mentioned that he was concerned and troubled.  I suppose that's better than giving an "institutionalist" prescription ("here are institutions that have been around for over 200 years.  I know, let's change them!"), but honestly Gates spoke as a spectator analyzing why so many mistakes are being made in a sloppy football game without mentioning the names of any of the players.
 
Now, if he believes the failures of our government are failures of laws rather than of men, he ought to have said so.  I don't think Gates actually does believe this.  I think he believes American government has gone badly wrong, and American news media has become fragmented, frivolous and superficial, but does not want to hurt the feelings of anyone he knows personally or initiate a public controversy that would trouble his life in retirement.  Anyone who believes the failures of our government are failures primarily of men rather than of laws is bound to regard his remarks in Philadelphia as no damned help at all.

From a reader in Alaska, a link to a story about a man who has worked for nearly 30 years in the Alaska state office in Washington and is now resigning, because of "the polarization and deterioration of the public policy process at the federal level."

A few more after the jump, plus links to some other commentary on the topic.

From a reader in Boston:

As you say, it is pretty alarming ("frightening" might be more a more fitting word) that someone as deliberate and thoughtful as Bob Gates would say what he did publicly.

I had some free time last week and decided to visit the JFK library - I hadn't been there in quite a while, and thought it would offer a welcome change to see politicians from a different era. I watched the entire recording of JFK's acceptance speech at the 1960 convention, and wasn't sure whether to be inspired at his eloquence and passion, or depressed at the contrast with today.  And when I looked at the exhibit about the 1960 election, I couldn't help but contrast Richard Nixon's statesmanship in not contesting the election with the fiasco of Bush v. Gore, or Norm Coleman versus Al Franken.  (And this from a Nixon-hater of very, very long standing!)

But what really struck me was the first few moments of the museum tour.  The introductory video begins with a clip of Kennedy's 1962 Yale Commencement Address:

"For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest--but the myth--persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

Those words seem like a perfect description of the politi-babble that we hear on cable and even what we dare to call "news coverage" today.

And from an American reader in Peru:

Sitting down here in Peru as an expat, but not ex-American thank you, it's been so beyond stressing to see what's happening in US politics. Thanks so much for drawing attention to this speech. I was surprised, almost shocked at the tight fist he was figuratively shaking at the political elites, and the finger-jab as well at the Republican candidates.

The situation is just so sad and maddening. Gates is perhaps one of the few pubic figures with enough stature, political gravitas and sheer years served to pull this off and have an impact. And yes, he's got guts. Here's hoping more such figures will heed their conscience and our rising sense of danger, put fingers to keyboard, voice to mic, face to camera  and continue to clang the warning bell that our democracy is weakening.

Of course part of the argument from the two former Senate staffers is that it would have been even gutsier to name names. And for more on that theme:

I am an admirer of Gates but in this case I'm disappointed by his false equivalence. I know he's a Republican and trying to be even-handed, but he might at least have hinted that the last president he worked for has shown himself all too willing to compromise, and that compromise can't be the sound of one hand clapping.
And:
Of course Mr. Gates never voiced his fears for the governance of the country while prostituting himself before the legislative branch of government to keep the dollars flowing to the military-industrial complex.  Enjoy your pension, Mr. Gates.

From Brian Beutler of TPM, an update on the latest wrinkles in Congressional dysfunction, and from Theo Anderson in In These Times, a historical analysis (not all that encouraging) of our predicament.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

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