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Gates Memoir Could Prove Helpful To Hillary Clinton In 2016

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in his new memoir that Hillary Clinton "is a superb representative of the United States all over the world."
Charles Dharapak
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in his new memoir that Hillary Clinton "is a superb representative of the United States all over the world."

In his new memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a fairly serious charge against Hillary Clinton that likely will hound her if she decides to run for president in 2016: that she admitted in his presence that there were political considerations in her opposition to the U.S. military surge in Iraq.

As soon as the first excerpts of Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War surfaced, many Republicans pounced on Gates' recollection of the Obama-Clinton Iraq surge conversation.

"Can we trust someone to be commander-in-chief when she misrepresented her position on a war because she wanted to be president?" said a statement from Tim Miller, a spokesman for the Republican opposition research group called America Rising. You can already envision the ads from America Rising and a number of other conservative groups.

Gates doesn't seem to accuse Clinton of misrepresenting her position. Instead, he says he observed a conversation in which she acknowledged that she took into account Democratic primary politics when they opposed the surge during the 2008 campaign.

But any suggestion that partisan politics colored Clinton's stance on national security strategy certainly isn't helpful, even if Gates didn't intend to impugn her integrity. They could play into the widely held perception, unfair or not, that she's politically cynical, and always seeking to position herself in a way that plays to her future political advantage.

Still, the Gates book swings both ways. He also offers up some of the best praise Clinton is likely to receive from a Republican. If she does eventually decide on another White House run, she'll be hard-pressed to find a presidential running mate (assuming she wins the nomination this time around) who can outdo Gates' praise.

"I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world," is how he described the former secretary of state.

While there's been much focus on Gates' recollection of Clinton acknowledging that politics factored into her position on the Iraq surge, here's a contrarian view: Gates' praise could potentially offset it.

It was so robust that a high-profile Hillary Clinton supporter like David Brock, founder of Correct the Record and Media Matters for America, found much to like. He even plastered it on the Correct the Record website.

"I think the surprising part is that he really does seem to be critical of almost everyone that he's worked with across administrations. It does seem like he goes out of his way to single her out for a lot of positive comment and praise."

It's unlikely Gates' warm praise for Clinton will hurt her with too many voters in her Democratic base since she opposed the surge, however she got there.

By contrast, Gates' positive review of Clinton as an impressive government servant could help her with those all-important political independents, many of whom once identified themselves as Republicans.

"Because he is a Republican, he has a certain kind of credibility with not only Republicans but with independents," Brock said.

While Gates may have advanced Clinton's cause, it's hard to interpret his comments about Vice President Joe Biden as anything but trouble for Obama's two-time running mate, who's also considering a 2016 presidential run.

Gates' searing criticism that Biden was "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," was so sweeping and unequivocal that Biden's supporters, unlike Clinton's, felt the need to go into full pushback mode.

The White House made sure news photographers got plenty of pictures of Obama and Biden having lunch Wednesday.

"The president and the rest of us here simply just disagree with that assessment," said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary who previously was the vice president's chief spokesman. "As a senator and as the vice president, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time."

But you expect Carney to say that, of course. Which only underscores just how extraordinary Gates' full-bodied praise of Clinton seems, coming as it does as the political focus turns ever more toward the 2016 presidential race.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.