Former defense secretary Robert Gates has left the busy world of D.C. behind to settle in the Skagit County home he longed for while he was away for the better part of 11 years.

Share story

Robert Gates and his wife Becky took a road trip last summer, driving from their home in Skagit County to Glacier National Park in Montana. For many, that would be a typical summer vacation, but for the Gateses, it was remarkable.

It was their first trip alone in 42 years, without kids and a federal security detail.

Across the country from Washington, D.C., in the other Washington, the former defense secretary of the United States spends much of his day in his study, with shelves upon shelves of books that line the walls and an elk mount watching from above. The study is both rustic and well-appointed, much like Robert Gates himself, sitting in an armchair in his casual plaid shirt and blue jeans.

Gates has left the busy world of D.C. behind to settle in the Skagit County home he longed for while he was away for the better part of 11 years. Gates made no secret during his time in D.C. that where he really wanted to be was in the Northwest, surrounded by mountains, water and a foggy climate, in the home he and his wife bought two decades ago with plans to settle down.

In the middle of a whirlwind book tour, he’s home for just a short rest but still finds time to let a local reporter visit and find out about his new life as a man who is “supposed to be retired.”

His kids think he is a serial failure at retiring, he jokes.

The man, quiet and measured, yet easy to laugh, has been traveling nearly nonstop in recent weeks to promote his book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” which has received both praise for his candor and insight, and criticism for his comments on the sitting presidential administration.

He has another book to finish by the end of summer and a new job as president of the Boy Scouts of America, starting in May. That job is just a two-year stint, he says, noting that he promised his wife that his latest obligations won’t eat up all his time.

Yet it is an important time for the Boy Scouts, which announced earlier this month that its membership has shrunk by 6 percent since the May 2013 vote to allow openly gay youths.

Gates is no stranger to managing organizations during divisive times, including similar issues the Scouts are facing.

As CIA director, he changed policies in 1991 to allow gay employees and oversaw the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on sexual orientation, which allowed gay people to be in the military as long as their sexual orientation was not revealed. It quickly became controversial, and many service members were investigated and discharged from the military. It was later ruled unconstitutional and eventually repealed by Congress.

In his book, Gates details how he pushed for time to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” time to survey the troops and their families, time to get an idea of how the repeal would affect the military during a period when two wars were being fought. Once lifted, the transition was smooth, he writes, much of which he attributed to the preparation he and others insisted upon.

Now he will bring the Boy Scouts through a similar time of transition.

“I think they took an important step forward saying that gay youths can be in Scouts,” he says. “And I strongly support that. I think now, certainly for the period that I am president, I think that there is a focus on trying to heal the organization, heal the divisions that were caused by the debate and refocusing on the program itself.”

The scouting program is especially important now, he says, at a time when three out of four Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 don’t qualify to join the military. Most of that is due to physical issues, including obesity, diabetes and asthma.

“I think any program that teaches leadership and character but also gets kids out of the house and into the out of doors and learning skills is ever more important today,” he says. “And particularly with so many of them basically being couch potatoes with the video games and the electronics and so on.”

Scouting also teaches kids how to lead people their own age, a skill Gates found extremely useful during his career. He has a long history with the Boy Scouts — both he and his older brother are Eagle Scouts, and he has a 1918 photo of his father in a scouting uniform.

Gates is stepping in at a time when many advocacy groups are calling for the Boy Scouts to also allow openly gay adult leaders.

“The beauty of CIA and the military is at the end of the day, when the law has changed or the policy changed, you can just tell people,” he says. “(Boy Scouts of America is) a volunteer organization, the volunteers had a big debate and they had a huge vote and the vote was pretty strong in favor of letting gay youths be in scouting, but it’s clear that there’s still a lot of reluctance to take the next step. We’ll see.”

As Gates manages change in the Scouts, he will write a book on the same topic — a how-to guide for managing change in large, public institutions, which he has done at the CIA, the Defense Department and Texas A&M University.

In “Duty,” he details the changes he pushed for in government — buying 27,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, making the defense budget more efficient and getting a surge approved for Afghanistan in 2009.

That’s what his book is really about, he says — the issues. Issues such as whether to use military force in Iran and Syria, the growing tensions between China and Japan and how to make government work.

“Those are all issues for right now,” he says, addressing the controversy that the book should have been released after President Barack Obama leaves office. “Not for 2017.”

It’s a controversy he finds silly, he says, because it’s “far from unprecedented” for cabinet members to release books while the administration they served is still in office.

A recurring theme in “Duty” is apparent in the title. Gates took the job of defense secretary because he felt it was his duty to serve while American men and women were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His favorite part of the job, he writes, was visiting the troops, which he did frequently. He would sit at their hospital bedsides, eat with them in the deserts of the Middle East and attend their funerals at Arlington Cemetery. It was his attachment to the troops that led him to know it was time to leave his job in summer 2011.

“I realized I was beginning to regard protecting them — avoiding their sacrifice — as my highest priority,” he writes. “And I knew that loss of objectivity meant it was time to leave.”

Meeting troops and their families on bases has been his favorite part of the book tour. Active-duty troops, their spouses and parents approach him at book signings to tell him how much it means to them that the secretary cared about them, fought for them and invested huge amounts of money to get better battlefield protection for them.

It’s been very gratifying, he says, and once things slow down, he wants to get involved with soldiers on a more regular basis, probably with a program related to Wounded Warriors.

The book tour, the travel and the constant interviews will end eventually — or so he plans. Then Gates will be at his home in Skagit County, still busy, certainly, but with time to do things he hasn’t done in years.

He relishes the laid-back lifestyle — he rows on the lake, he runs in the morning, he visits his two children who both live nearby. He looks forward to traveling with Becky, to see places he’s never been that are only a couple days’ trip away. The Oregon coast, California’s Big Sur and the west side of Vancouver Island are on the short list.

He doesn’t miss the fast-paced D.C. life one bit.

“People asked me that after I came out here after being head of CIA, ‘How can you stand being detached?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I love it!’ I love not getting 3 o’clock-in-the-morning telephone calls. I love having all these problems be somebody else’s to solve. So I haven’t, I haven’t missed it at all.”

A phone rings during the interview, but Gates ignores it. Then Becky’s voice enters the study via a wall-mounted intercom. The call was from a boat company letting him know his new Christmas present, an 1820s, racing-style rowboat, will soon be ready for pickup.

Becky Gates has deep roots in the Northwest. She grew up on the Olympic Peninsula, and the couple were married in Seattle. Robert Gates backpacked in the Olympics and Cascades, and the Kansas native fell in love with the Northwest and the abundance of water. When the family was looking for houses in the early 1990s, it was son Bradley’s job to run straight to the kitchen to see if there was a window in front of the sink overlooking the water. If not, there was really no need for the family to look at the rest of the house.

They finally found the right one, and for 20 years now, it has been home.

“This is where we have everything. I mean, at one point we had stuff scattered from here, Texas, D.C.,” he chuckled. “We’ve just regarded this as home since 1994, even when I was away, this was home.”

Once the book tour is done, the travel has ended and the next book written, the Gateses will visit Orcas Island, spend time with friends and appreciate the incredible place they call home.

Gates will recover from the neck injury he’s been nursing since taking a fall at home on New Year’s Day, and he’ll finally get a chance to try out that Christmas present.

He will see the people of Skagit County around town, perhaps at a fast-food restaurant, his dining experience of choice. The valley is full of friendly, laid-back people, he says.

“I think people give each other their space and you know, it’s a place where everybody kind of dresses the same, you just never know who you’re dealing with,” he says. “Some guy in a flannel shirt and jeans might be a former secretary of defense — or, he might be a farmer. I kind of like that.”


Information from: Skagit Valley Herald,