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Gates is an important choice

Editorial Board | Friday, January 28, 2011

Robert Gates is not Stephen Colbert. Nor is he Bono.

He has never appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly or been named one of People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”

Rather, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was featured on the February 2010 cover of Time Magazine. In 2009, Esquire put him on its list of “The 75 Best People in the World.”

Gates may not be the most entertaining choice for Commencement speaker, or the first name a senior in a wishful state might think of. But he is a good choice, and an important one.

As the Class of 2011 prepares to graduate and to enter what is fearfully referred to as “adulthood,” it will hear from a man who is intricately linked with some of the most pressing issues facing America today.

He is also connected to college students; before accepting his position as secretary of defense in 2006, Gates was the president of Texas A&M. He understands seniors’ mindsets as we approach Commencement day, and we expect he will be ready with a relevant and, yes, captivating speech. His penchant for dry one-liners is not a secret, nor is most Notre Dame students’ ability to understand sarcasm, we think.

Gates is the only defense secretary ever to keep his position under a new president and has kept his message consistent under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

He is a figure who could be highly controversial, but is instead unifying.

Gates might be unpopular with some for one reason or another — his role in the Iraq war; his criticism of “don’t ask, don’t tell;” his Aggie pride — but no one can deny his leadership and his dedication to this country. He has made many important, tough decisions throughout his career and has stuck by the results. The experience gained in those moments of choice is something any graduating senior should be eager to learn from.

The choice of Gates as Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient is symbolic for the University as well.

Last year, the choice of Brian Williams as Commencement speaker was received by some as a retreat by Notre Dame, an attempt to deflect the controversy from Obama’s 2009 address.

But the decision to honor a government official this year shows the University’s willingness not to back down, and to legitimize its choice of two years ago. Despite working for Obama, Gates will probably not invite the type of criticism so rampant in 2009; but when it issued this invitation, Notre Dame undoubtedly understood all of its nuances.

This is a selection the Notre Dame community and, more importantly, the senior class should embrace as the right choice for our University and for the Class of 2011. Gates may not be a popular talk show host or the president of the United States, but we’re happy with where he falls in between those two standards.

What he is, among other things, is a celebrated and central figure sure to have significant words.

He’s also an Eagle Scout, so we can only imagine popcorn tubs were included in this deal.