Having people universally respect and listen to you in Washington DC is a little like trying to manage a team to a World Series win in both the AL and NL. It’s not impossible, it has been done but it sure doesn’t happen very often.
So when Robert Gates left his position as Secretary of Defense last week after coming back for a second act and working for both a Republican and Democratic president, not only did he earn plaudits from both men under whom he served, he also received well-deserved credit from both sides of the political aisle. This fact becomes even more amazing when you consider the arena into which he was thrown. Donald Rumsfeld had thrown the military under the bus and even Afghanistan no longer seemed to be an acceptable risk. But Gates somehow navigated the minefield and emerged a superstar on the other side.
This is not to say that Gates did it alone. Just like La Russa had the Bash Brothers and Dennis Eckersley while managing the Athletics and Pujols and a team that refused to die in the 2006 Cardinals, Gates also had a good team to work with. At the Defense Department, he not only had the support of both presidents, he also had a stellar supporting cast including guys like Gen. David Petraeus.
Gates somehow managed to remain popular while going against political orthodoxy. He not only advocated for the Congress to allocate less money to defense, he also pointedly asked them to allocate more to development and diplomacy. Normally that sort of a move is political suicide but politicians from both sides applauded his efforts, even if they ultimately ignored him.
As Leon Panetta now takes the reigns at DoD, he has a tough act to follow. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be successful. Art Howe followed La Russa in Oakland with a few years of sub-par baseball and then two 100+ win seasons. Sure, Howe may not have earned a ring like La Russa and it’s unlikely that Panetta will walk away as highly regarded as Gates. But you never know. Because if Gates proved anything, it’s that sometimes the second time around can be better than the first.