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Robert Gates sounds off (again)

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Robert Gates was back in Washington this evening with a display of the understated candor that was a trademark during his five years as secretary of defense. It was Gates, after all, who last year described members of Congress as a group “with oversized egos and undersized backbones”—a line he cheerfully repeated during tonight’s award ceremony hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration.

Gates, on hand to receive the academy’s Elliot L. Richardson Prize for excellence in public service, spoke during a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with James Kitfield, senior correspondent at National Journal. Here are a few other excerpts:

* On the similarities between the CIA, Defense Department and Texas A&M University, all of which Gates headed during his long career: “In all three places, most of the people you work with have tenure. They’re there before you got there and they will be there after you leave. If you really want to change something, you’d better make them your partners in change.”

* On canning people: “I don’t think I fired anybody because they didn’t know about a problem. . . . What I fired them for was once they knew about it, they didn’t take it seriously.”

* On the increasing polarization of American politics: “I am very worried.  It’s because we’ve got a situation where compromise has become synonymous with selling out or abandoning your principles. If you want highly ideological politics, go to France—those guys perfected it.”

The ceremony was held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in downtown Washington.

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