If there is a redeeming feature of the darkening Bush presidency, it is that the president eventually jettisoned Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- though it took him six years to figure that out -- and hired Robert Gates, a true public servant.
Under Gates' leadership, prospects in Iraq have improved dramatically and Washington has become a noticeably less bellicose place. He promotes the use of "soft power" but understands the need to balance the soft and hard power America wields. Unlike Rumsfeld, he does not operate in the grip of a theory; he is no ideologue with weapons to command.
Nor does his first-rate service come as a surprise. Before he was a stellar secretary of defense, he was a stellar director of the CIA for the first President Bush. Indeed he has served six presidents from both parties.
Gates is nothing of the showboat his predecessor was, but his stock has risen lately because of suggestions that Barack Obama might seek to keep him on as secretary of defense, should he win the election. That is a heartening possibility -- one that would demonstrate a commitment to seeking the best, regardless of party -- and one that many people would be glad to see John McCain adopt, as well.
Gates has said nothing publicly about his willingness to continue in his position, but with the course of the Iraq war finally improving, there can be little to gain in changing leadership.
What is more, Gates has strong ideas on how to attend to Afghanistan, where the original war on terror is deteriorating through the neglect caused by the diversion to Iraq.
As Charles deGaulle caustically observed, the cemeteries are full of indispensable men, so it is possible that a President Obama or a President McCain could find an equally able successor.
But consistency and continuity are important factors to consider, as well. Gates has served the nation well over the past two years. We hope he will be offered the chance to continue to serve. The challenges remain difficult and the country needs good people.