WASHINGTON — When Robert Gates took over at Texas A&M University in 2002, he piqued students' curiosity when he began joining members of the school's storied Corps of Cadets on early- morning runs, often joking that he wanted to lead the pack of runners because otherwise he'd get left behind.
For a man known to lead by example, the morning runs were the kind of thing that gave Mr. Gates, an outsider, the entree he needed and allowed him to use his presidency to gently remake the school as he wanted it. Now, having left that job reluctantly in December to become secretary of Defense, he is finding those leadership skills fully tested by an unpopular war, a stretched-to-the-limit military, an increasingly critical Congress, and a restive public.
So far, his report card looks promising.
In the three months since he moved to the Pentagon, Gates has clearly established himself as a pragmatist and effective navigator of the Washington bureaucracy whose low-key style belies an insistence on accountability and a willingness to act decisively when crises threaten to spiral out of control, observers say. Perhaps most important, he is the un-Donald Rumsfeld.
While the former Pentagon boss was seen as blustery and combative and put ill- prepared underlings on the defensive, Gates is quickly becoming known as an analytical thinker and consensus-builder, listening to all sides before asserting his authority. "I think the management style we're seeing in D.C. is quintessential Bob Gates," says Doug Slack, who knew Gates when Professor Slack was the speaker of the faculty senate at Texas A&M in College Station. "He's a guy who listens and then takes action."
There is no better example of that style in his short tenure at the Pentagon than earlier this month when he reacted angrily – and publicly – to the Army's slow response to dilapidated facilities at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He ultimately forced the resignations of the secretary of the Army and the Army's surgeon general. And last Tuesday, Gates acknowledged the misstep of his senior military adviser, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who expressed his personal views of homosexuality. General Pace's personal views "don't have a place here," Gates said.
The Defense secretary is also credited with leading the way to increase the size of the military, announcing within weeks that he would grow the Army and Marine Corps over the next five years, and introducing troop-friendly initiatives such as expanding a program that would pay them for deploying for early or extended combat stays. Assuring lawmakers that he did not return to Washington to be a "bump on a log," Gates says he will speak truth to power. That posture has helped President Bush move forward with an escalation of the war in Iraq to a doubting Congress now seemingly forced to play a game of wait and see.
Affable but serious, Gates has already garnered the respect of officials in the halls of the Pentagon, but he is seen more than just a Mr. Fix-It at the Defense Department. The diplomatic community has warmed to him, and to some observers, it's no coincidence that the Bush administration has reversed itself and is now engaging directly with Iran and Syria.
"I suspect that Bob Gates could be the most powerful man in Washington if he chose to be," says Paul Eaton, a retired Army two-star general and vocal critic of Mr. Rumsfeld and the war effort.
While many have high hopes for what Gates can do, he's not a cure-all, says an analyst.
"There's a lot of blame to go around for what happened in Iraq," says Robert Work, vice president for strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington and a retired marine. "I would hope people don't say, 'Rumsfeld's gone, and suddenly everything is going to get easier.' That's not the way it works."
Gates and his wife, Becky, maintain a home in the relative calm of the San Juan Islands in Washington State, but it's Washington, D.C., he knows best. After joining the CIA in 1966, he became an analyst of Soviet policy. That position didn't stop him from joining an antiwar protest in Washington in 1970. Gates went on to become the CIA's director in 1991 under President George H.W. Bush, who became a close personal friend and at whose urging Gates reportedly returned to Washington.
In his book about the end of the cold war, "From the Shadows," Gates lamented the demise of some of the former presidents for whom he worked. "Public service in a rough-and-tumble American democracy is not for the weak or faint of heart," he wrote.
At Texas A&M, Gates was seen as "a conservative but not an ideologue," says Slack. Instead, he became known as an agent of change, remaking the university's strategic vision and rebranding the school, the nation's seventh largest. As president, Gates helped drop legacy admissions policies that favored relatives of alumni over outsiders and also changed the focus of admissions to attract more minorities, based not on race but on merit, Slack says. He also elevated the stature of the faculty in symbolic and substantive ways.
"He would not go along with the plans until the faculty had been consulted and the faculty had agreed to the changes," Slack says. "He made it happen so people realized that when he asked for input, he was going to use it."
How much of a reformer he can be in a Pentagon that even Rumsfeld was hard-pressed to transform is unclear. Gates will probably be replaced under a new administration in 2009, leaving him little time to dramatically change the culture inside the building. And his focus will probably be on Iraq, leaving him less time to delve into broader matters.
Gates' penchant for consensus-building should help build bridges with members of Congress, many of whom felt dismissed by Rumsfeld. Even though Gates becomes the new public face of an unpopular war, and maintains the failure-is-not-an-option position oft-repeated by Bush, lawmakers on Capitol Hill credit him for raising the tone of the discussion in Washington even if many still don't agree with what they're hearing.
"I think there is a sense that there is a new look in the Pentagon and a greater willingness to accept and listen to the views of others as it relates to matters of national security," says a staff assistant to a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who was not authorized to speak to the press. "It seems to me he's working on it."
Still, all the praise for Gates may begin to wane if there are not immediate signs of success in Iraq. "The bottom line is there is still a fundamental disconnect between what the Democrats believe should happen in the war and what Secretary Gates believes should happen in the war," says Mr. Work.