Robert Gates Says Any Good President Has to Have a Sense of Humor

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Jan. 17 2014 5:50 PM

The Second Is a Sense of Humor

Robert Gates says an effective president must have two qualities. The first is a good temperament.

DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary of War by Robert M. Gates
A soldier waits to have his copy of Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War signed by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon on Jan. 16, 2014.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Like many people with a strong view about Robert Gates' new book, Duty, I have not read it. I did, however, attend a reporters' breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor where the former defense secretary spoke for an hour. Gates confirmed what was obvious from the excerpts of his book. His views about Presidents Obama and Bush are varied and complex and far more positive about both than the initial reports suggested. "I have the growing feeling over the last week that my book has become like Lenin," he said. "You can find in it whatever you want to support your position."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Since Gates has served in eight administrations, I asked him about my favorite topic: the qualities required to be an effective president. The two he picked: temperament and a sense of humor. 

"I can’t improve on what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said about FDR in the early ’30s, when he said he has ‘a second-rate intellect and a first-rate temperament.’ You look at our greatest presidents, from Washington to Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to FDR to, in my view, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan—I think Holmes’ description fits those guys very well. And they surrounded themselves with really smart people and were willing to listen to them." 


The quality of temperament, about which I wrote in a multipart series on the presidency, is not easy to spot in a candidate. The crucible of a campaign does approximate a slice of presidential life—the personal stress and the requirement for focus when the noise machine is pointed right at your ear. But presidential temperament can only really be tested in the office, because that's the only place on the planet where you have to deal with decisions of that weight. In a president, temperament is the habits of mind that allow you to take the longer view when your emotions tell you otherwise, that keep you from abusing power when no one is looking, that make you enough of an adult to take harsh criticism and not so much of a baby that you react to every dumb blog entry. 

This view of temperament leads Gates to a somewhat counterintuitive conclusion: Executive experience isn't a necessary requirement for the presidency. This is not a historically crazy claim. After all, Abraham Lincoln didn't have any executive experience, but executive experience is talked about as an essential quality on the campaign trail. President Obama’s critics often cite his lack of executive experience as a central flaw of his presidency. During the hiccup, flop, and clang of the launch, the fact that the president had never run as much as a lemonade stand was cited as a reason he'd not been able to get his team to operate efficiently. But Gates' argument is that President Obama shows no deficiency from lacking executive experience. 

"I think if you look at governors, they tend to—the executive experience at least helps them figure out a decision-making process. But that said, I don’t want to make that too rigid because the truth is, as I write in the book, Obama had never run anything. But I never saw anybody, particularly anybody who had not run a big organization, take so quickly and eagerly to making executive decisions. And he welcomed the opportunity to make hard decisions. … When he had to make a decision in a hurry, he could be very decisive in a very short period of time in matters of life and death, and the Osama Bin Laden raid is a good example of that. So I think that he, even in terms of decision-making, the lack of executive experience has not inhibited him or been a significant drawback."

This is such a recommendation, the Obama team would want to put it in a campaign ad. The president is not running again, of course, but Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, who are contemplating running for president with Obama-like résumés, should take comfort.

The second important quality for a president to have, says Gates, is a sense of humor. "I mean that in a very serious way," he said. "I think a sense of humor and a sense of the absurd reflects a balance and a perspective on the world that is very healthy. Of all the presidents that I worked for, there are only two who had no discernible sense of humor: Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. I rest my case."

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.



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