ARUN RATH, HOST:
When it comes to American foreign policy, the hot topic this week wasn't Syria. Instead, pundits and commentators of all types were furiously debating how President Obama handled the wars in his first term. That was thanks to retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' new book "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." Even though the book hasn't hit stores yet, critics of the White House have been crowing over Gates' unvarnished critique of President Obama and Vice President Biden.
But npr.org Washington correspondent Liz Halloran says that Gates' assessment of the president was tame compared to the beat down he delivers to members of Congress.
LIZ HALLORAN, BYLINE: Oh, Arun, where to start? How about this? Uncivil, incompetent, parochial, egotistical and putting self and re-election before country, or maybe that some Congress members became, quote, "raving lunatics" when the TV cameras are turned on. Yeah, seriously, it was harsh, bare-knuckled language, to put it mildly. And we felt that even after a majority of Americans hold Congress in pretty low esteem, this was pretty significant. I mean, he even went as far to say that some of the members of Congress seemed to suffer from mental duress that warranted confinement.
RATH: Well, maybe Joe Biden feels a little bit better after hearing that. But, you know, as you say, a majority of Americans, if you look at national polls, share that opinion of Congress. Why do we care that Gates said it?
HALLORAN: Well, look, he's a serious, highly respected senior official, and he served eight Republican and Democratic presidents in his career. He led the CIA. He was a top national security advisor. And he also served as president of Texas A&M University. I mean, he's not a bomb thrower. He's known as a very measured man. I've had him described as, you know, having this Midwestern calm, steady hand. And it's really just plain unusual for a public servant of his stature and temperament to be so blunt and so publicly critical of Congress, and to name names.
RATH: Yeah. And speaking of naming names, you write about how he was especially harsh in his assessment of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, the Democrat.
HALLORAN: Yes. I mean, he criticized Congress as a whole for what he called its kangaroo court hearings on war and war spending, and even ridiculed members of Congress for pushing their parochial interests. For example, he talks about Republican Senator Mitch McConnell's insistence on funding for a home state chemical weapons disposal plant.
But it's true, Reid really seemed to get under Gates' skin. He writes that Reid once asked him if the Defense Department - and you'll recall at the time they were engaged in two wars - Reid asked if the Defense Department could invest in research on irritable bowel syndrome. And that Gates said he didn't know whether to laugh or cry at that. But what really angered Gates happened back in 2008 during the debate over extending the Iraq troop surge. Reid opposed it, and he held a press conference where he declared that this war is lost.
RATH: Wow. That could not have gone over well with the secretary of Defense.
HALLORAN: In a word, no. In fact, Gates writes that he was so furious at the time that he shared with his colleagues an Abe Lincoln quote to express how he felt. That quote in a nutshell, Lincoln basically says that congressmen who damage morale or undermine the military during wartime should - and I'm quoting Lincoln here - "be arrested, exiled or hanged." And I think - yeah, that strongly - I think it gives you a pretty good idea of how maddening Gates found the situation and his frustration with what he saw as a lack of competence of many members of Congress.
RATH: That is remarkable. NPR.org Washington correspondent Liz Halloran, thank you.
HALLORAN: Great to be with you, Arun.
RATH: And tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, host Steve Inskeep speaks with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about his memoir and the uproar surrounding it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.