Before Robert Gates held his first Pentagon press conference as defence secretary, reporters were curious how his modus operandi would differ from Donald Rumsfeld’s, his predecessor. When he opened with something Mr Rumsfeld rarely gave – an apology – it was clear a new era had dawned.
Sitting between reporters in an unassuming manner at a large table, Mr Gates apologised for the crowded room and for holding the briefing on Friday afternoon, before explaining that he would prefer “a more informal setting than the dais and the big sign behind me”.
Although he returned to the Pentagon briefing room – where Mr Rumsfeld enjoyed lecturing reporters from the podium – for his second “round table”, Mr Gates sat at a small table, prompting a joke that he resembled an anchor man for the Pentagon television channel.
Asked if he was trying to distinguish himself from the “acknowledged master of the Pentagon briefing”, Mr Gates, who as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had few public dealings with the media, said he would “never be in that category”.
He added that he was not making a statement about the past. But he appeared to do just that when he explained his preference for “more of a conversation than a one-way means of communication”.
Mr Rumsfeld, who might best be described as charismatically antagonistic, resembled Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era defence secretary who revelled in answering not the question posed to him but the question he wanted to be asked.
Larry Di Rita, the former Pentagon spokesman, said his old boss enjoyed “throwing himself into the fray” because he believed it important to “try and truly educate the press corps” about complex issues.
Travelling to Europe last week, Mr Gates seemed almost shy in comparison. But when interrogated in Seville about the evident contrast with Mr Rumsfeld, he warmed up, saying he found the questioning “amusing”. “As an old Kremlinologist, it shouldn’t surprise me,” he said.
Then he closed by saying that people could judge for themselves after his speech to a security conference in Munich whether he would take “a different path than secretary Rumsfeld”.
He did. Mr Rumsfeld ruffled many feathers by splitting US allies into “old Europe” and “new Europe”, although he later repaired some of the damage by joking about “old Rumsfeld” versus “new Rumsfeld”.
Remarking in Munich that European countries had often been pigeonholed into categories – the “free world” versus the “Iron Curtain” – Mr Gates drew guffaws when he said: “Some have even spoken in terms of ‘old’ Europe versus ‘new’.” But in his less abrasive manner, he also delivered a Rumsfeld-like message in reminding the mostly European audience Nato was a “military alliance” and not a “social club”.
In his speech, Mr Gates also displayed some Rumsfeldian humour - the former defence secretary sometimes joked about the weight of one reporter - when he reminisced about a 1989 meeting in Bonn where the most serious problem was “seeing to it that there were enough cakes and pastries on hand for both the Chancellor [Helmut Kohl] and the deputy secretary of state [Lawrence Eagleburger] ”.
Before sunrise one morning, Mr Gates went for a 2 ½ mile run with US marines, maintaining a habit he had as dean of Texax A&M University when he would run with students. Mr Rumsfeld, in contrast, preferred playing squash with his top aides, humiliating them in jest when they lost.
Mr Gates, 63, has remarked that he prefers to sit at press conferences because he gets tried. The 74-year old Mr Rumsfeld, in contrast, preferred working at a standing desk in his office. He once questioned on a memo why detainees should be made stand for only four hours, when he himself stood daily for eight to ten hours.
Back in the Pentagon press room on Thursday, Mr Gates maintained his non-combative style. And while he showed glimpses of Rumsfeldian behaviour – by deflecting an embarrassing question about pre-war judgements on Iraqi security to General Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs – he was very matter of fact.
Asked about recent comments by a US general that the trail for Osama bin Laden had “gone cold”, Mr Gates would only reply that the al-Qaeda leader should “keep looking over [his] shoulder”.
Responding to a similar question in 2001, Mr Rumsfeld gave the New York Times a dose of the typically entertaining, yet infuriatingly evasive, answers that critics said ultimately reduced the news value of his press conferences. “If you’re chasing the chicken around the chicken yard and you don’t have him yet and the question is, ‘how close are you?’ the answer is, ‘it’s tough to characterise because there’s lots of zigs and zags’.”
Dov Zakheim, a former senior Pentagon official under Mr Rumsfeld, said the two men have very different styles because of their backgrounds. He said Mr Gates was more of an analyst who reacts only after absorbing and evaluating information. In contrast, Mr Rumsfeld, a former champion wrestler, was “more visceral, and relies heavily on his gut instincts”.
Mr Gates has also enjoyed somewhat of a honeymoon on Capitol Hill where lawmakers have not yet used him to hammer home their views on the military surge in Iraq. In a swipe at Mr Rumsfeld and other senior Bush administration officials during his confirmation hearing, one senator told Mr Gates he was being afforded better treatment because he was a breathe of fresh air.
But Mr Gates may soon find his honeymoon draw to a close. On Thursday, he came under pressure over recent contradictory statements by members of the military and Bush administration about the extent to which top Iranian officials had approved attacks on US solders in Iraq.
Ultimately, Mr Di Rita said, Mr Gates would probably have to deal with the “inescapably confrontational” nature of Washington press conferences.
“[But] if Secretary Gates wants to find ways even on the margins to take some of that edge out, more power to him,” he said.