Politics & Policy

General Mattis Is a Great Man — and a Good One

Donald Trump and Mike Pence greet retired Marine General James Mattis (Reuters Photo: Mike Segar)
Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of defense is not only a brilliantly accomplished man, but a modest and kind one as well.

Donald Trump has made a number of promising picks for his cabinet, but surely none better than his selection of my Hoover Institution colleague General James Mattis as secretary of defense. His record shows clearly that he’s a great man — the loyalty he inspires and the way he treats others shows, even more important, that he’s a good one.

I’ll let others more expert in military matters chime in about the specifics of his strategies and tactics, but, while there are certainly many others who know him far better than I, there are some things I can say about General Mattis as a person, having worked down the hall from him the past three years.

On the eve of his retirement, Military Times referred to Mattis as “the most revered Marine General in at least a generation. Disagree? Name one other individual who is almost universally praised by everyone from lance corporals to his fellow four-stars.”

And, indeed, the loyalty that General Mattis commanded from his Marines was legendary. This continued at Hoover, where he was universally admired and respected by the scholars and staff. He’ll need that loyalty and goodwill in the Defense Department as he attempts to manage one of America’s largest and most intricate bureaucracies with its competing fiefdoms and interests groups.

Contrary to his gruff, no-nonsense reputation, exemplified by his famous Mattisisms,” the Jim Mattis I saw was always courtly and deferential, never making a show either of his enormous professional accomplishments for which leaders so eagerly sought him out — or his enormous learning, particularly in military history, as shown by his personal library of more than 6,000 books. For all of General Mattis’s well-earned tough-guy reputation, he is clearly a deep strategic thinker who understands the value of seeing the present through the lens of the past. (For a great example of General Mattis as an intellectual, check out this example of him discussing the importance of reading for the officers under his command.)

At Hoover, General Mattis was always courteous to and solicitous of everyone, from former secretaries of state to administrative staff. In discussions with his colleagues in the Hoover fellowship, he was not shy about sharing his views but was just as eager to listen quietly and learn. In fact more than once, in informal discussions with other fellows in which Mattis took part, I had to stop myself mid sentence when I found myself haranguing him about some evanescent political detail or other about which I thought I had a “brilliant” insight.

Catching myself, I would think: “Who the hell are you to be lecturing to General Mattis about anything?” But of course he would never tell me that himself, even if he thought so. He was only interested in what he could learn from a colleague, and he was always interested in talking to those with knowledge outside of his areas of specialty. In fact, General Mattis was often so modest and self-deprecating that it was hard to square his formidable “mad dog” reputation with the almost relaxed personality that he projected. But in those same fellows’ lounge discussions, he would sometimes take the lead, and to listen to General Mattis talk about military strategy, history, and doctrine was to take a master class in the art of war.

This week at Hoover, it has been impossible to miss various unfamiliar personnel going in and out of General Mattis’s office. Throughout that time he seemed casual and relaxed, as if it was just another day at work. If you’ve made a career out of decisions involving the lives and deaths of thousands of U.S. Marines under your command, a presidential nomination, even for one of the most senior roles in government, just isn’t a cause of significant stress.

I spoke briefly with General Mattis earlier this week, and rather than seeming preoccupied with his own situation, he asked about “that big, beautiful family of yours.” (I had brought my wife and five young children to Hoover’s annual birthday celebration for the Marine Corps, which General Mattis had attended as one of the guests of honor. General Mattis kindly took the time to talk to my entire family, even though there were far more important people in the room. After speaking with General Mattis, my older boys, ages ten and eight, were ready to sign up as Marine recruits.)  

When I waved away his kind remarks about my family this week, he stopped me short and said with seriousness, “Those kids are the people we are fighting for.”

Washington, D.C., has a way of distracting people from doing the things they should be doing with worries about petty bureaucratic infighting, who is rising and who is falling in power, and what’s in the daily newspaper. General Mattis, in remembering the family of a junior colleague at a time in which an ordinary man would have understandably been thinking only about “me, me, me” showed, as he has shown throughout his career, that he is not an ordinary man.

And as secretary of defense, General Mattis will indeed be fighting for my kids, and millions of others like them. I’m confident that even in times of stress, he won’t forget it. In an era of picayune distractions, of Twitter feeds and talking heads, General Mattis will always stay focused on the mission.

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