Robert Gates, Submariner

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Gates at the Constitution Center, with his Liberty Medal

Sure, the former defense secretary was an Air Force intelligence officer deep in the heart of the Cold War, not a naval officer. But since he left the Pentagon in June, he’s acted more like a stealthy bubblehead, slipping silently beneath the waves, surfacing only occasionally to lob missiles at the American government he served for more than four decades.

His biggest barrage to date came last Thursday during a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where the center awarded him its 2011 Liberty Medal:

At a time when our country faces deep economic and other challenges at home and a world that just keeps getting more complex and more dangerous, those who think that they alone have the right answers, those who demonize those who think differently, and those who refuse to listen and take other points of view into account—these leaders, in my view, are a danger to the American people and to the future of our republic.

Gates is one of those unique public figures with the standing to slap American politicians and have it sting. Having served presidents of both parties — indeed, he slid from serving as Pentagon chief under George W. Bush into the same job for Barack Obama without a hiccup — he knows Washington’s ways.

Gates cited three reasons for Washington’s current impasse:

— First, as a result of a highly partisan redistricting process, more and more seats in the House of Representatives are safe for either the Republican or Democratic Party. As a result, the really consequential campaigns are not the mostly lopsided general elections, but the party primaries, where candidates must cater to the most hard-core ideological elements of their base.

— Second, addressing this country’s most intractable and complex problems requires a consistent strategy and implementation across multiple presidencies and congresses…But when one party wins big in a “wave election”—of which there have been several in recent election cycles—it typically seeks to impose its agenda on the other side by brute force. This makes it all the more likely that the policies will be reversed in the next wave election and, consequently, all the more difficult to deal with this country’s most serious challenges over time.

— Third, there are vast changes in the composition and role of the news media over the past two decades. When I entered CIA 45 years ago last month, three television networks and a handful of newspapers dominated coverage and, to a considerable degree, filtered extreme or vitriolic points of view. Today, with hundreds of cable channels, blogs and other electronic media, every point of view, including the most extreme, has a ready vehicle for wide dissemination.

All these have polarized the nation’s politics and made compromise “a dirty word,” Gates said. “Yet, our entire system of government has depended upon compromise. The Constitution itself is a bundle of compromises.”

Sure, Gates — with his Kansas twang, small stature, shock of silver hair and quiet demeanor — lacks the loud voice of a true believer, or the forceful delivery of a hired gun. But to continue that weapons analogy, it’s his common sense that many believe is his true force multiplier.