-- A Washington state high school student took a chance on a phone number he found in a newspaper photo in June and managed to score an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Secretary of Defense James Mattis for his school.
Teddy Fischer, a sophomore at Mercer Island High School managed to conduct a full-length features interview with Mattis for his school paper the Islander on June 20 thanks to an inadvertent disclosure in a photo used by the Washington Post. On May 11, the newspaper embedded in an article a photo featuring Trump’s former bodyguard-turned-Director of Oval Operations Keith Schiller carrying a set of papers with Mattis’ private number written on a sticky note at the top of the stack.
Although the Post removed the photo with the information from its website quickly, Fischer saved the number, called it seeking an interview, and Mattis replied several days later, agreeing to speak with him.
“I’ve always tried to help students because I think we owe it to you young folks to pass on what we learned going down the road so that you can make your own mistakes, not the same ones we made,” Mattis said to Fischer and his colleague, Jane Gormley.
Gormley said she was "blown away" when Mattis gave the duo a 45-minute interview and felt his "time as a professor" really came through in the interview because he wanted to make sure his responses were understood.
"Mattis surprised me because he was willing to treat our staff like adults by giving complete, coherent, thoughtful, and long responses to every question. Mattis said to me that he speaks to students the same way he would speak to congressmen, politicians, or generals, adding that he thought high-schoolers were 'plenty bright,'" said Fischer.
In the full feature transcript, Mattis shared his regrets over not paying more attention to history as a school subject, telling him that history will “not show you all the answers but tell you a lot of questions to ask,” and it will “show you how other people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar type issues.”
Mattis also delved into deep detail about why he chose to say "lack of political unity," rather than Russia or ISIS, when the New Yorker magazine asked him what worried him the most about his new position in the Trump administration in its May spread, James Mattis, A Warrior in Washington. Mattis told New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins that the "lack of fundamental friendliness" and the amount of "people who feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from governments" concerns him.
When Fischer asked him how the younger generation of Americans could work towards improving this disunity, Mattis stressed they should be "very slow in characterizing" one another.
"I know that when people have to run for office they have to say, ‘I’m smart and my opponent’s dumb,’ or ‘I’ve got better ideas than my opponent.’ That’s politics, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, I get very very concerned when I hear people start characterizing their opponents as stupid… Generally speaking, just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t make them crazy or evil," responded Mattis.
He added that "sitting down and talking with [each other]" reminds Americans that everyone is a human being and that "taking people one at a time and [giving] them the same credit you give yourself and your ideas" represents a step towards a better political climate.
But Mattis dove into specific detail about defeating ISIS, and gave firm emphasis on providing children across the world more access to intercultural education.
“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 10 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," said Mattis.
“I think ideologies can be countered by showing people a better education and hope for the future by learning how to get along with one another,” added the former commander of the United States Central Command.
Mattis used former king of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s decision to give four-year scholarships under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) to both boys and girls to study in the U.S., Canada and England since 2005 as an example of “moving the society” towards progress and away from strict "conservatism."
The retired Marine Corps general also didn’t shy away from questions on Russia’s relationship with Assad, warning that there are a lot of reasons for the strong ties between Russia and Assad’s army base.
“[T]he Russians have had military bases, military relationships there for the last 30 to 40 years, so there’s a certain kinship. Another one is that Russia right now has chosen to be a strategic competitor with NATO and with the United States, so this is an area they can compete in although frankly between U.S. military and the Russian military, we maintain very open communications with each other as we try to de-conflict our operations” said Mattis.
However, Mattis pointed out that Russia realizes it’s not in their “best interest to support Assad” and are figuring out how to get out of it now.