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Prof. recalls time with Gates

Madeline Buckley | Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The last time Professor Michael Desch saw Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Gates’ office in the Pentagon in 2009. The two had been colleagues at Texas A&M, and Desch was in Washington seeking the defense secretary’s help in a project to reconnect academia and military policy.


During his visit, Desch, chair of the Political Science Department at Notre Dame, got a V.I.P tour of the Pentagon and witnessed a head of state visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I was literally the only person that wasn’t part of the security details there for that visit,” Desch said with a laugh. “Netanyahu’s security people couldn’t figure out who I was. They kept eyeing me.”

The two former colleagues will reunite again in May — this time at Notre Dame.

Gates, who took office in December 2006, will deliver the University’s 166th Commencement on May 22 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Desch — who held a chaired position in Gates’ name at Texas A&M while Gates was president of the university — knows the Commencement speaker on a personal level, and has invited him to speak at Notre Dame in the past.

“I could have planted that seed for the idea of inviting Gates to be Commencement speaker,” Desch said.

But Desch wasn’t part of the selection process for the speaker, and was pleasantly surprised when he heard his old colleague would come speak at the University.

Desch said Gates was well-respected by faculty and students during his tenure as president of Texas A&M from 2002-2006. His appointment as university president was controversial, Desch said, because of his governmental ties to the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The Aggies, or A&M alumni, also saw him as an outsider.

“But Gates was so effective as president that the Aggies quickly decided he was an Aggie all along, even though he had never gone to school there,” he said.

While leading Texas A&M, Gates displayed qualities similar to what Desch said appeared later in his leadership style as defense secretary.

“People say what makes him so influential in Washington these days is that he’s careful, he picks his fights, is smart about how he goes about things and doesn’t get up and pontificate,” Desch said. “Bob is not somebody whose ego gets in the way of getting what he wants.”

Desch said the qualities that helped Gates win over the Aggies at Texas A&M made him ideal to serve as defense secretary under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

“The fact that he served as secretary of defense in two different administrations, one Republican and one Democrat, is a pretty powerful indicator of where he stands as an American statesman,” Desch said.

Gates has also served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission that examined the Iraq War.

Desch said he is looking forward to seeing the former Texas A&M president speak at Notre Dame.

Desch said he believes Gates is the “perfect” choice for Commencement speaker because of his position as a crucial statesman in the U.S. government. But perhaps, he said, what makes Gates the right choice is his record with students at Texas A&M.

“The students loved him,” Desch said.