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Afghanistan war decision: how Robert Gates thinks

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His other ravenous appetite, say aides, is for information – and he sets aside time every day to read (right now, says Gates, he's into Douglas Brinkley's "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America"). He has a weakness for low-end escapist movies – such as "Iron Man" and "Wolverine" – but also recently saw and liked the more realistic "The Hurt Locker," about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq.

Gates himself jokes about the unassuming figure he cuts – once saying he was more like Austin Powers than James Bond when he flopped as a young spy and was funneled instead to the less glamorous toils of an intelligence analyst.

So inoffensive is his personality that even his political enemies seem to find no purchase for personal attack.

But it wasn't always that way. Earlier in his Washington career, Gates was thought to have played an active role in the Iran-contra affair, derailing his first confirmation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But an independent investigation cleared him, and President George H.W. Bush renominated him in 1991.

Cracks in Gates's bland facade often reveal the emotional complexity that makes him tick. He's so intensely compassionate that he can easily become choked up or cry. He's not without ego, say those who work with him, and they notice that when he's loosened up – notably after his iron-clad rituals of predinner cocktail and postdinner "cigar walk" – he enjoys holding forth among groups of people, telling jokes or stories from his illustrious career, less interested in a conversational give-and-take than in his own thoughts. And his temper, while usually contained verbally, can come out in fierce glares.

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