While reading Robert M. Gates' new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," I wasn't surprised at all by his forthright and revealing account of his four-and-a-half years as defense secretary.
I met Gates for the first time in 1991, shortly after his confirmation by the Senate as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. A graduate of William & Mary, he was in town to deliver a lecture at his alma mater's law school.
As I reported at the time, Gates' confirmation hearings focused on his alleged role of misleading Congress on the Iran-Contra affairs and his willingness to slant crucial intelligence reports for political reasons. But, in the end, all allegations boiled down to perceptions about his character and his intellectual integrity. The Senate confirmed Gates 63-31, reflecting a wide margin of trust in his personal and professional integrity.
I have found a similarly positive attitude about Gates in Williamsburg. He arrived here in 1961, as a student at William & Mary, and soon become known as excelling in academic programs while engaging in a variety of extracurricular activities.
Thaddeus Tate Jr., a professor of history and director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture, remembered Gates as an honor student "with a singular dedication to learning."
Wilford Kale, the former Williamsburg bureau chief of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was a fellow student of Gates in the 1960s, participating in the same intensive study, history seminars. He remembered Gates as having a superb intelligence and analytical mind and having a strong moral fiber.
"He was honest, had great intellectual integrity and was very loyal," Kale said.
After his lecture at the law school, I was given an opportunity to interview Gates. I asked him in half-jest: "Will we ever learn from your memoirs whether Gorbachev was a CIA asset, as his enemies in Moscow are asserting?"
Gates replied with a grin, "No, you won't read anything of this sort in my autobiography, but there may be a chapter describing my first encounter with Gorbachev. It took place in the Kremlin. We were sitting across from each other at a conference table.
"Gorbachev pointed his finger at me and said reprovingly, "I know all about you, Mr. Gates, and how distrustful you are of us. But you will be proven wrong. And remember my words. Because of your attitude, you will lose your job."
During the ensuing years, I have interviewed Gates several times. Not having been the CIA director anymore, he was at liberty to talk more freely about his role in governmental policies. Thus, he could reveal that as deputy director of the agency. he was instrumental in keeping the CIA out of the unlawful arms dealings with Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras. He also talked freely about his role in the failed attempt to repair the breach between the United States and revolutionary Iran.
All in all, what I learned from Gates, and about him from people who had known him during his formative years, confirmed my belief that his memoirs, although highly critical of the Obama administration and of a "dysfunctional Congress," is an honest evaluation of what he experienced and had to deal with during his tenure as secretary of defense.
In his inauguration address as the new chancellor of William and Mary, Gates said that the 1693 charter called for a chancellor who was "eminent and discreet."
"I'm well behind the curve in the eminent department," he said. "But when it comes to discretion, you got the right guy. I definitely know how to keep a secret."
He apparently meant CIA secrets because his book reveals a lot about Washington that politicians from both parties would rather keep hidden.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.