16th Bryan Series starts with Robert Gates


“Well, it is a pleasure to be here with you in Greensboro,” began former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the War Memorial Auditorium. “But I do have to tell you that it’s a pleasure to be anywhere but Washington, D.C.

“The place where those who travel by road of humility encounter little heavy traffic.

“The place where so many people are lost in thought because it is unfamiliar territory.

“The only place you can see a prominent person walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand.”

Thus began the 16th season of the Guilford College Bryan Series, with the presentation of Gates, former director of the CIA, former president of Texas A&M University and former secretary of defense.

Audience members were unable to contain their laughter for the first few minutes of Gates’ presentation.

After most of the Bryan Series attendees left the auditorium, a group of six stayed behind discussing the presentation.

“With that humor at the beginning, he got us all on his side,” said Bill O’Neil, one of the six.

Kathy Covanoeigh, another member of the group, agreed.

“It was just so easy to hear, with good diction, good humor,” said Covanoeigh. “A very humble man.”

Gates, however, quickly transitioned into more serious issues that would dominate the podium the rest of the night.

“At Texas A&M I would see thousands of young people, 18 to 24 years old walking around, backpacks and t-shirts, going to class,” said Gates. “Then literally overnight, I was in Iraq, seeing thousand of kids the same age wearing full body armor and carrying assault rifles.”

Soldiers, he made clear, were his priority during his tenure as secretary of defense. His greatest achievement, he said at the Bryan Series, was being called the “secretary soldier” because he cared so much for the men and women in uniform.

“He would meet every soldier who came in a plane, in a coffin,” said Bill Covanoeigh, who also stayed behind after the presentation. “For every single one. (We have) great respect for that man, and we would vote for him tomorrow.”

Topics during the event ranged from the Cold War, to leadership, to the government shutdown, to the use of drones.

Jeff Tiberii, Greensboro bureau chief for North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, served as moderator for the Q&A session where audience members sent in questions to ask Gates.

One question asked Gates to explain his apparent disdain for Washington, D.C.

“The reason I came to hate it was that getting anything done was so damn hard and every day was a fight,” said Gates. “Every day we were in war in two places, and every day I also had a war with the Congress … with the White House and with my own department. And it just gets exhausting after a while.”

Gates also mentioned how impressed he was with the questions asked by Guilford students at the private Q&A session earlier that day at the Community Center.

“The questions were almost always significantly more thoughtful than the ones I used to receive in hearings for Congress,” said Gates. “For one thing, students typically know the difference between a question and a speech.”

The audience, especially the students, seemed to greatly enjoy Gates’ presentation.

“I liked his humor, I liked how directly he spoke about the issues our government is currently having,” said junior Anthony Rea. “I liked that he didn’t sugarcoat things. He actually seemed to be speaking his mind, and I appreciated it.”

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