Politics and Humor: Reflections on Robert Gates’s Duty

Picking up former Secretary of Defense Robert Gate’s memoir Duty, one does not expect to see much appreciation of humor in it. Here is a man who kept on his desk a passage from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals about Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. It described how he [Stanton] reacted to making a decision that he realized would lead to a soldier’s death: “leaning over a desk, his face buried in his hands . . . shaking with sobs. ‘God help me to do my duty. God help me to do my duty!’ he was repeating in a low wail of anguish.” (258)

After serving six previous presidents, Gates became the secretary of defense of Bush and Obama from 2006 to 2011. In that capacity, he sent many soldiers to their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he knew it. But he was “determined not to let these men and women ever become statistics” to him, so he looked at pictures and read a little about each killed soldier, and he tells us that “virtually every night for four and a half years, writing condolence letters and reading about these mostly young men and women, I wept.” (109) Regardless of how one feels about the wisdom and morality of sending U. S. troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult to doubt that Gates believed, like Stanton during the Civil War, that he was doing his duty.

Despite his grief, however, he did, like still another often-grieving man who sent numerous soldiers into battle, appreciate the importance of humor. And that other man, during our Civil War, was Lincoln. In his Abraham Lincoln, The War Years, 1864-1865, Carl Sandburg wrote:

On the day after [the North’s crushing defeat at] Fredericksburg the staunch old friend, Issac N. Arnold, entered Lincoln’s office [and] was asked to sit down. Lincoln then read from [humorist] Artemus Ward. . . . That Lincoln should wish to read this nonsense while the ambulances were yet hauling thousands of wounded from the frozen mud flats of the Rappahannock River was amazing to Congressman Arnold. As he said afterward he was “shocked.” He inquired, “Mr. President, is it possible that with the whole land bowed in sorrow and covered with a pall in the presence of yesterday’s fearful reverse, you can indulge in such levity” Then, Arnold said, the President threw down the Artemus Ward book, tears streamed down his cheeks, his physical frame quivered as he burst forth, “Mr. Arnold, if I could not get momentary respite from the crushing burden I am constantly carrying, my heart would break!”’

Sandburg also wrote that “Lincoln was the first true humorist to occupy the White House.” In Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (2006), Joshua Wolf Shenk notes that one way Lincoln dealt with the sadness that often threatened to overwhelm him: “He told jokes, which he called ‘the vents of my moods & gloom.’”

Gates’s fondness for humor becomes clear early on in his memoir when he writes of the other members of the Iraqi Study Group, whom he met with in 2006. Congress authorized this bipartisan group of ten to assess the Iraqi war and make future recommendations about it. Surprisingly, Gates’s comments on how, despite the seriousness of their purpose and the report they finally delivered, it does not indicate “how much fun” the group had. He then elaborates: “[Former Republican Senator Alan] Simpson is simply hilarious, [Democrats Leon] Panetta and [Vernon] Jordan both have a great sense of humor, [Former Republican secretary of state James] Baker is a fount of wicked one-line asides, [former Democratic representative Lee] Hamilton has a very dry Indiana sense of humor, and everyone was easy to get along with.” (31)

In the pages that follow Gates will often indicate that people he likes, such as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2007 to 2011) Admiral Mike Mullen, have a good sense of humor. About former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he writes “I found her smart, idealistic, but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.” (289)

He also admits to sometimes teasing or having a “little fun” with people, or enjoying a good laugh. About Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, he writes that he was “a whirling dervish with attention deficit disorder,” but “I enjoyed Rahm. He made me laugh.” (294) He gives a lengthier description of another occasion of laughter.

Occasionally, amid so many issues and problems affecting our troops that wore me down, there would be an incident or moment that made me laugh or raised my spirits. . . . On the front page of The New York Times, there was a photograph of a soldier firing his rifle at Taliban attackers . . . . [It] had captured Specialist Zachary Boyd defending his firebase dressed in helmet, body armor, flip-flops, and pink boxer shorts with little red hearts in which were printed “I love New York.” I burst out laughing. “Any soldier who goes into battle against the Taliban in pink boxers and flip-flops has a special kind of courage,” I said publicly. . . . I loved that picture so much that an enlargement hung on the wall outside my office for the next two years. (310)

Gates sometimes engages in self-deprecating humor, such as when explaining that although he liked and respected President Obama, he did not socialize with him. “I was a foot too short, too athletically inept, and too old to be considered for the Obama presidential basketball team, nor did I play golf.” (297)

Gates also found that humor was helpful in international settings, most notably at the Munich Security conference of 2007. He describes Russian President Putin launching “a diatribe against the United States” and asking “why the United States was creating frontline bases with up to 5,000 troops on Russia’s borders; why NATO was expanding aggressively toward a nonthreatening Russia; and why a missile defense system was being deployed in Poland close to the Russian border.”  Gates then writes, “I decided not to respond in kind to Putin but instead to use humor as a weapon.” Here is what he then said to the conference:

Speaking of issues going back many years, as an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday’s speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time. Almost. Many of you have backgrounds in diplomacy or politics. I have, like your second speaker yesterday [Putin], a starkly different background—a career in the spy business. And, I guess, old spies have a habit of blunt speaking.

However, I have been to re-education camp, spending four and a half years as a university president and dealing with faculty. And as more than a few university presidents have learned in recent years, when it comes to faculty, it is either “be nice” or “be gone.”

The real world we inhabit is a different and much more complex world than that of twenty or thirty years ago. We all face many common problems and challenges that must be addressed in partnership with other countries, including Russia. For this reason, I have this week accepted the invitation of both President Putin and Minister of Defense Ivanov to visit Russia.

One Cold War was quite enough. (155-56)

Gates’s fondness for humor reminds me of words by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential U.S. theologian and one who often spoke on the relationship of politics and ethics. He wrote that “a sense of humor is indispensable to men of affairs who have the duty of organizing their fellowmen in common endeavors. It reduces the frictions of life and makes the foibles of men tolerable.” And he coupled humor with humility—a virtue often in short supply among politicians—when he added:

People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to “stand off” from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions. All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. We are rather insignificant little bundles of energy and vitality in a vast organization of life. But we pretend that we are the very center of this organization. This pretension is ludicrous; and its absurdity increases with our lack of awareness of it.

walter mossAfter completing his memoir, Gates added a little more about politics and humor when he had breakfast with a group of reporters. John Dickerson, chief political correspondent of Slateasked him about “the qualities required to be an effective president. The two he picked: temperament and a sense of humor.” About the second, he added: “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.” Although Gates’s words suggest a harsher judgment about Carter than I’m comfortable with, I like the rest of their Niebuhrian tone. So, I’ll also rest my case.

 Walter Moss

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Comments

  1. signalfire1 says

    A professor of history should know better, or are wars just one big yuk to you?

    One wonders whether the ‘unhumorous’ presidents actually took their job seriously and whether the frat boys sending other people to their deaths were a little too isolated from the front lines. Send those laughing jackasses to the front lines dressed in pink flipflops and I Love NY underwear and you can forget the accompanying rifles and ammo. Maybe the ‘Taliban resistance’ will explain to them why they shouldn’t be over there, and what it feels like to lose a couple limbs or be killed while the idiots back home ordering you around like pieces on a chessboard find it all a humorous anecdote to tell, you know, history-wise.

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