(WASHINGTON) — While most of official Washington came to a standstill Monday because of Hurricane Sandy, a small room of VIP’s gathered at the Pentagon to honor former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Making his first visit back to the Pentagon since he departed his post last summer, Gates was on hand for the unveiling of his official portrait. Like those of his predecessors, Gates’ portrait will hang in the hallway outside his old Pentagon office.
The approaching hurricane led to the closure of the federal government on Monday, and the Pentagon was no exception. But that didn’t stop current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other VIPs from continuing on with Monday’s planned unveiling.
“It’s not every day you have to brave a hurricane in order to come to a portrait unveiling,” said Panetta, who then joked, “But then again, to those of us who’ve been in this job, it’s like dealing with a hurricane every day, so we’re used to it.”
Braving the elements for Monday’s ceremony were National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. Top staffers from Gates’ years of service in both the Bush and Obama administrations were also on hand for Monday’s event.
Panetta praised Gates for his leadership and dedication to national service, and, perhaps most importantly, his concern for the troops deployed under his command. Panetta pointed to Gates’ decision to purchase the heavy vehicles known as MRAPs that provided greater protection from roadside bombs in Iraq.
“Hearing from our troops how much they valued that protection is, I think, a lasting legacy of Bob,” Panetta said. “He helped save lives.”
“I know that we’re all here to unveil a portrait but, in reality, a portrait is made up of oil and canvas and fades with time,” Panetta added. “I think the most important portrait of a person is the memory that we hold that person in our hearts and the respect and honor that we have for that individual. That portrait in all of our hearts for Bob Gates will last forever.”
Gates exhibited the candor and dry humor that marked his tenure as defense secretary. He pointed out that the portrait unveiled Monday was painted by Ray Kinstler, who also painted Gates’ portrait nearly 20 years ago when he served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1990s.
Gates joked, “A sure sign you’ve been in Washington too long is when Ray Kinstler has more than one crack at your portrait a generation apart.”
Between writing his book and preparing for Monday’s event, Gates said, he had time to reflect on the things and people he missed from his tenure. But he did not miss the meetings, conferences and hearings associated with the post — or the constant travel and jet lag for meetings with counterparts. For instance, he had required bi-monthly meetings with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
He definitely did not have a fond recollection of what he termed a “less edifying experience of being shaken down by the defense minister of Kyrgyzstan for rent at Manas airbase,” which was a crucial transportation hub for troops and supplies headed into Afghanistan.
But despite what he called his, “grousing about the foibles of Washington” and the “aggravating aspects” of the job, Gates said serving as defense secretary, “was the singular honor and highest calling of my professional life.”
He spoke glowingly of his experiences with the troops under his command who were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and said he never took lightly the responsibility of signing their deployment orders.
Gates expressed the hope that scholars studying his tenure would walk away with the recognition, “that I came to work every day with the simple question: Are we doing everything we can to get the troops everything they need to succeed in their mission, to come home safely and, if wounded, to get the best possible care when they come home?”
Gates’ provided his own assessment on that front: “In some instances, the answer was satisfactory; in others, less so.”
The former defense secretary recalled the words of a predecessor, Gen. George Marshall, whom he said took seriously the obligations that come with sending “our military to war.”
“He said we must do everything we could to convince the soldier that we were all solicitude for his well-being,” said Gates. “You couldn’t be severe in your demands unless he was convinced you were doing everything you could to make matters well for him.”
At a time in which the Obama administration is under fire for allegedly not responding to distress calls from Americans in a terror attack that left four dead in Benghazi, Libya, Gates’ words were especially moving: “That’s what I hope people will remember when they walk down the E-ring corridor and see my portrait,” said Gates, “that our comfort and safety are borne on the brave and broad shoulders of those young men and women in uniform, and it is our duty — our sacred obligation, in Marshall’s words — to make things well for them.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Kathryn Vasel, CNN Newswire
Theodore Schleifer, CNN Newswire