WASHINGTON — Few government employees get a retirement party like what’s in store for Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted a farewell dinner Monday night. Gates’ staff held a dinner Tuesday night. President Barack Obama and the first lady host a dinner at the White House on Wednesday evening. And on Thursday, Gates’ last day in the Pentagon, Obama will attend the formal Armed Forces Farewell Tribute outside the Pentagon, complete with 19-gun salute.
Unlike in military change-of-command ceremonies, Gates will not take a flag, pass it to the president who passes it to CIA Director Leon Panetta, the next defense secretary. For the 9:45 a.m. ceremony on the River Entrance parade ground, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will speak and introduce Obama, who will then introduce Gates.
The secretary has a 10- to 15-minute speech planned, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, likely his last in public service. Gates also wrote a final message to the troops, which was distributed worldwide through Defense Department channels. Gates is known to choke up when speaking about the troops, and Morrell said he felt more comfortable writing a personal message than chancing speaking through emotions in the formal Pentagon ceremony.
Afterward, Gates will host a reception inside the Pentagon and have lunch with his family and a close group in his office before flying home to Washington state.
Gates will be long gone but technically remains defense secretary until Friday, when Panetta is sworn in. Why?
One theory: the free ride home. If he is still a cabinet secretary, he still gets to fly Air Force.
“One of the reasons he is flying out, I believe, on military air is that he still has the responsibilities for that day,” Morrell said.
A few other high-profile couples are expected to attend Wednesday’s White House dinner, including Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, as well as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Mullen and Panetta and their wives, Morrell said.
It’s not all high ceremony, though. On Wednesday morning, at the far end of the massive ground floor Pentagon food court, not far from the Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen booth, Gates stood against a wall for an hour shaking hands, posing for pictures and passing out his personal challenge coin to anyone who wanted one. Hundreds of Pentagon employees snaked around the escalator to the other side of the wing. Gates smiled for each one of them.