A rare interview with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came from an unlikely source: the Mercer Island High School student newspaper.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis generally avoids the press. He’s absent from news shows and only answers one or two questions during news conferences. Even the largest news outlets would covet a candid interview with the retired Marine Corps general whose nickname is “Mad Dog. ”
So a 5,900-word interview with Mattis about ISIS, warfare and radicalization made quite an impact as the story went viral Monday — especially since the interviewer is a student at Mercer Island High School.
Teddy Fischer, who will be a junior at the Seattle-area school next fall, was reading a Washington Post article in May about President Trump’s bodyguard that included a photo of him walking with a stack of papers with a yellow sticky note that, examined closely, listed Mattis’ phone number.
The Islander’s Jim Mattis interview
To read the full interview, go to http://seati.ms/mattisinterview
The Post eventually took the photo down, but Fischer had already saved the number. He left a message with Mattis shortly afterward, asking for an interview for his school newspaper, The Islander.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
It’s hard for a reporter to get a direct private number of a senior official. It’s even harder to get that person to call back, especially if you’re a student from across the country.
But Mattis told Fischer that his message was compelling, in part because Fischer is a student, and in part because Mattis grew up in Washington state along the Columbia River, and graduated from Central Washington University.
“I just thought I’d give you a call,” he said in the interview.
“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.”
When Fischer told classmate Jane Gormley he had landed an interview with the four-star general, she didn’t believe him. She wrote an essay about the experience, which was published in June along with a full transcript of the interview and a story about Mattis’ thoughts about radicalization and education.
About a week after Fisher left the message, Mattis called him back, while he was in journalism class. While his iPhone screen lit up with the notification that “Jim M” was calling, Fischer handed his phone to a friend, who then answered by saying “Yes, sir.”
Once they confirmed that the caller really was Mattis, the group spent about two weeks coming up with questions and thinking of an angle that would be relevant to high-school students.
“The real question was, ‘What would the general say to teenagers?’ ” Chris Twombley, journalism teacher at Mercer Island High School said. “Here is this guy in power, what advice does he have for teenagers growing up in a world defined by terror and certainly by partisan politics and what appears to be a lot of divide?”
During the interview with Fischer, Mattis encouraged young people to get involved, talked about political unity and outlined what he sees as the future of the Middle East. The 15-minute interview grew to 45.
“ … I don’t care for ideological people,” Mattis said. “It’s like those people just want to stop thinking. They know what they think, they don’t read anything but one newspaper that agrees with them or they watch only one television news show because it reinforces them, instead of listening to the ones that don’t agree with them.”
Though the stories about The Islander interview have focused on the students, Gormley and Fischer said they would like readers to focus instead on the content of the interview. Fischer said Mattis deserves more credit than they do.
“It’s a story people should read not just because it’s by high-schoolers, but because it’s an interesting story,” Gormley said.
And Mattis did speak as if he were being interviewed by a professional journalist, though there were a few reminders that he was speaking with a high-school student. When Mattis spoke about the Marshall Plan, Fischer said that he had just studied it in his world-history class.
Fischer also asked what advice Mattis has for graduating seniors. Mattis said they should go out and help others.
“If you can help the larger community in the world,” he said, “you won’t be lying on a psychiatrist’s couch when you’re 45 years old wondering what you did with your life.”