July 12, 2017

Resourceful high school students score an interview with Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the kids make us proud


James “Mad Dog” Mattis

I love this story. After the Washington Post accidentally ran a photo that included the private cell number of Defense Secretary James Mattis, enterprising students at Mercer Island High School (near Mattis’s hometown outside Seattle) called him up and requested an interview:

In a photo published alongside this article by The Washington Post on May 11, Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, could be seen carrying a stack of papers with a yellow sticky note stuck on the top. Written on it, in black ink, was the name “Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis” and a phone number.

The photo was quickly removed, but not before many, including MIHS Islander sophomore staff writer Teddy Fischer, saved it.

Calling the number, he left a message asking if Mattis would be interested in conducting a phone interview with The Islander. A few days later, when Teddy said Mattis had agreed, I didn’t believe him.

But, after receiving three more calls from the defense secretary to set up a date and time for the interview, Teddy and I got to work preparing questions.

The experience may well prove to be a formative one for these young students, but the resulting story is also a rare example of a member of the current administration putting words together to form complete sentences, and putting sentences together to express coherent thoughts and ideas. Yes, it’s an interview with the Secretary of Defense largely about the nature of warfare, but how about we let the bones of the story be a temporary balm for the soul? Some highlights from the full discussion:

TEDDY: What subject areas do you think students should be studying in high school and beyond to better prepare themselves to be politically active and aware adults?

MATTIS: Actually, I’ve thought a lot about that question. I would tell you that no matter what you’re going to go into, whether it be business or politics or international relations or domestic politics, I don’t think you can go wrong if you maintain an avid interest in history. The reason I say that is you’ll find that really, there’s nothing new under the sun, other than some of the technology we use.

The human condition, the aspirations, the dreams, the problems that are associated with being social animals, not being a hermit and living alone, but having to interact with others, whether it be your local school district, your community, your state, your county, your national, your international relations, history will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask and furthermore, it will show you how other people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar type issues. I wish now looking back on it, if I’d known what waited for me in life, I would have put a lot more attention into history.

TEDDY: We actually just studied Marshall Plan in my world history class.

MATTIS: Oh great. You know what I’m talking about then when we put together the United Nations, that was really American leadership but we did it with others. United Nations, we had Bretton Woods, you know the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, we put together NATO for the military alliance to defend our values. All of that grew out of that great World War II generation that, like it or not, were part of a world. We can’t just be isolationist like we were after World War I.

TEDDY: How can the US defeat an ideology?

MATTIS: I think the most important thing on that is probably education. An economic opportunity has to be there as well. On the education, I sometimes wonder how much better the world would be if we funded for nations where they have ideology problems, where the ideologies are hateful, full of hatred. I wonder what would happen if we turned around and we helped pay for high school students, a boy and girl at each high school in that country to come to America for one year and don’t do it just once, but do it ten years in a row. Every high school whether it be in Afghanistan or Syria or wherever, would send one boy and one girl for one year to Mercer island or to Topeka, Kansas or wherever.

In addition to the transcript of the interview, the editor of the paper, Jane Gormley, published her reflection on the experience:

I fell in love with journalism because it humanizes and highlights people that would otherwise go overlooked. But, working on this story made me realize the power it has to humanize the stoic and seemingly one-dimensional political figures we see on the news everyday.

“I’d like to begin by asking some questions directed to our high school audience,” Teddy said. Mattis’ response set the tone for the rest of the interview.

“I speak the same to high schoolers, college grads, or congressmen,” he said. “I’ve found high schoolers to be plenty bright.”

It’s one thing to say that history matters and the social sciences you take in high school have real-world applications. But, it’s another to hear the material you’ve studied referenced by someone who is shaping the history future generations will study.



Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.