Always make the call: A high school paper scores an interview with the secretary of defense

Jul 15, 2017

It all started with a sticky note.

When the Washington Post published an article back in May about President Donald Trump’s body guard, they failed to notice that one of the photos included a sticky note with the personal phone number of the US secretary of defense.

Teddy Fischer, a student at Mercer Island High School in Washington state, took the opportunity to save the number before the picture was taken down, and jokingly texted Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis to ask for an interview for his school paper.

A few weeks later, the general called back — he wanted to know when they'd like to talk.

So Teddy Fischer and Jane Gromley crafted questions for what turned out to be a 45-minute interview that was both wide-ranging and unusually frank.

They discussed history, foreign policy, and the current political climate. “There are parts of the interview that almost read or sound like something that you would hear in a history class,” said Gromley. “It was really interesting to hear someone who's living history explain it to you.”

And there were some lighter moments too, like when Mattis told the students he didn’t like his nickname. “He hates being called ‘Mad Dog' ... I think his call sign in Iraq was actually ‘Chaos,” said Fischer. “He told me that he goes by Jim, and I think he's pretty casual because he's from the West Coast.”

Here’s a little bit of their interview with Mattis for The Islander:

Fischer: Do you believe the international community needs to provide greater assistance in combating terror? Trump has consistently criticized nations, especially, those a part of NATO, as not paying their fair share. Is this true and do countries need to help the U.S. more in Middle Eastern conflicts?

Mattis: Back under President Bush, I was a NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation, which means I commanded forces from 25 NATO countries plus about 40 other countries that are called partners with NATO, since many nations from Singapore and Japan to Colombia, South America, and the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, had partnerships in NATO because they all want to be associated with NATO. And back under President Bush he said you’ve got to pay more. I’ve sat behind then Secretary of Defense Gates who said the American people are not going to keep paying more than you for this defense.

Then when President Obama came in, they made the exact same argument and so what President Trump has done, perhaps in a blunter fashion, is he has said the same thing. It’s not a new concern, and by the way as of a year ago, the NATO nations began paying more. They all signed a pledge in October of last year to commit 2 percent of their GDP to the defense, in building up their defense. So right now there’s five nations in NATO including ourselves, who are paying 2 percent. By next year, I think it’ll be 9 and there’s a number of nations that all agree they’re going to keep right on growing theirs to the agreed upon 2 percent. Being part of a country or an alliance like that is a little bit like going to a bank. If you want to take something out, you have to put something in and I think it’s actually essential.

The way I put it to them when I went out there to carry the message to the NATO countries, again I knew many of these people from my prior time there before I went and retired and went to Stanford University for three years to teach and all, the way I put it to them was, you cannot expect American parents to care more about your children’s future than you care.

That was well received, there was no push back or saying that’s not fair. There was none of that. I think President Bush, the second President Bush, i think President Obama, I think President Trump, are right. And by the way, the secretary general of NATO also agrees that the nations all need to do that. He’s a former prime minister of Norway, he’s not an American. Secretary general of NATO is never an American and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg completely agrees with that. They’re going to have to pay more. And they’re doing it. They’re raising the money, it’s coming in more, democracies are always slower than dictatorships because you have to get consensus first, but they’re coming.

I’ve got to get rolling Teddy. One last question before I’ve got to go back into a meeting?

Fischer: Out of thousands of calls, why did you respond to this one?

Mattis: You left a message there and I was going through listening to the messages and deleting them. But you’re from Washington state. I grew up in Washington state on the other side of the mountains there on the Columbia River. I just thought I’d give you a call.

Whenever I can, I try to work with students who are doing research projects. I was at Stanford University for a little over three years after I got out of the Marines before I got surprised by this request I’d come back and be the secretary of defense. So, 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.

You can listen to The World's full interview with Fischer above, and read The Islander's transcript of their interview here.


From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI