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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - You know the 1960s are a long time ago when a TV network targeting college students names the civilian head of the military as its Man of the Year, but that's exactly what mtvU did on Wednesday.
The 24-hour offshoot of the MTV lifestyle cable network has picked Defense Secretary Robert Gates as its inaugural Man of the Year. A committee of mtvU staff also named Nicki Minaj, a rookie rapper with fluorescent hair, as Woman of the Year.
"It is somewhat counter-intuitive," MTV General Manager Stephen Friedman said of Gates. "But when you look at what he's done, especially this year ... he's really a role model as a public servant who has avoided the partisan rhetoric."
Gates, a former CIA operative who was recruited by the spy agency while studying at Indiana University, was named defense secretary in 2006 by Republican President George W. Bush. He retained the job after Democratic President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
Gates has been a staunch advocate for the military while the U.S. fights two wars, yet he has called for spending cuts. He also battled senior officers and lawmakers by supporting a successful repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law that bars gay men and women from serving openly in the armed forces.
"It was an antiquated rule, and he was a reasoned voice on don't ask, don't tell. That, for us, defined him as someone who has had a real mark on young people," Friedman told Reuters.
He added that unlike previous groups of young men and women bent on fighting the establishment -- in the 1960s, of course, many were anti-Vietnam War protesters -- today's "millennial generation" believe "they are part of the system and can change it." Gates, he said, embodies that same idea.
Minaj made the grade not only for her career success, but also for speaking out on topical issues such as homophobia in the music industry and bullying, mtvU said.
In 2010, the rapper became the first solo female artist in seven years to hit No. 1 on Billboard's rap music chart with her single "Your Love." Her first album, "Pink Friday," debuted at No. 2 on the U.S. pop chart earlier this month.
"She's been a strong businesswoman, activist and successful artist, and that is a rare combination," Friedman said.
Reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Dean Goodman