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Rumsfeld Resigns; Bush Picks Gates for Defense

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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And I'm Melissa Block. Change is in the air in Washington and across the country. Democrats cemented their control of the House and have moved significantly closer to taking over the Senate. NPR now projects that Democrat Jon Tester has narrowly defeated incumbent Senator Conrad Burns in Montana. While in the other undecided Senate race in Virginia Democrat Jim Webb still leads Senator George Allen, that contest is likely heading to a recount. We'll get to those stories in a moment.

NORRIS: First to the day's other main news. Earlier today President Bush announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Now after a series of thoughtful conversations, Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that the timing is right for new leadership at the Pentagon.

NORRIS: Later in the afternoon the president introduced the man who he's tapped to take Rumsfeld's place. He's Robert Gates, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and a close ally of Mr. Bush's father.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Nominee, U.S. Secretary Of Defense): Because our long-term strategic interests and our national and homeland security are at risk, because so many of America's sons and daughters in our armed forces are in harm's way, I did not hesitate when the president asked me to return to duty. If confirmed by the Senate, I will serve with all my heart and with gratitude to the president for giving me the opportunity to do so.

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NORRIS: We're joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent John Hendren and John, we just heard Robert Gates who was speaking at the White House, alongside President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. What else did they have to say?

JOHN HENDREN: Well it was one of the awkward scenes that you get in Washington from time to time, one of those that I'm sure will come up in highlight clips, where you have the old guy, who's sitting there somewhat awkwardly, the new guy, who still seems a bit shocked to be in his first major press briefing, and the president praised them both.

He said that Gates would offer a fresh perspective, that his CIA experience made him the right man for the job. He pointed out that he had had experience in Afghanistan under President Reagan and that he's visited Iraq.

He also praised Secretary Rumsfeld, saying he was among the most skilled and capable national security leaders in the country and that America is safer and more secure because of that.

Gates went on to say he didn't seek the job but he was honored to serve, and Rumsfeld looked a bit less, sort of, commanding than you tend to see him in the Pentagon press briefings. A little humbler and as someone was just saying, like he was trying to restrain his emotion.

There was this awkward scene at the end where President Bush gives him sort of a paternal pat on the back.

NORRIS: A lot of questions of course about timing, especially given that just a week ago President Bush had said Donald Rumsfeld will be my defense secretary until the end of my administration.

HENDREN: That's right. And Rumsfeld has said, he's offered to resign twice before. The president did not accept his resignation and as you point out, this last week there was this sort of verbal slight of hand we discovered today in which the president said that he wanted Rumsfeld to stay on, and now we find out the day after the election that not only had he planned for someone to succeed Rumsfeld but that he had that guy ready to step into office right away.

After supporting Rumsfeld steadfastly all this time, the president seems to have finally acquiesced and made Rumsfeld the fall guy for an unpopular war in Iraq and for a policy that most Americans don't support.

Sources say that Rumsfeld has been trying to get out for the past year or so, but that he really wanted to leave on an up note. That clearly did not happen today. I don't think this is the way he wanted to go. Rumsfeld was long seen as a lightning rod. He drew the heat away from the president and clearly that's just not happening anymore.

NORRIS: Tell us more about the new nominee to be defense secretary, Robert Gates, and how his policies might differ from those of Donald Rumsfeld.

HENDREN: Well Gates is the president of Texas A & M. He's a career, civil servant and that makes him very different, not only from Rumsfeld but from anyone else the president - that was on the top of the list that most of us were talking about the president choosing. Someone from Congress, even a moderate Republican, still would have brought this sort of political background.

Now Gates - I think the idea here is that theoretically he would be above politics and that any shift in policy he makes would be sort of a decision of a technocrat as opposed to a politician. He's by no means one of the neocons that are so often mentioned around President Bush. He's actually somebody who was quite close to the first President Bush and has been rather critical of the Rumsfeld and Cheney conduct of the war.

NORRIS: Okay. Thanks very much. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, John Hendren. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.