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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mattis: Foley’s example of serving others is exactly what our county needs right now

General James Mattis, USMC (retired), is interviewed on March 12 at a small home in Richland, where he has an office and greets visitors.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Spokesman-Review

The Spokesman-Review

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis will be the inaugural recipient of the Thomas S. Foley Award for Distinguished Public Service. Mattis will be honored by Washington State University’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service on Tuesday during a ceremony at the John Hemmingson Center at Gonzaga University.

Leading up to that event, The Spokesman-Review sat down with Mattis earlier this month for an in-depth conversation in which the Pullman native discussed a wide range of topics, including current world conflicts and the expansion of NATO.

This is the final of three excerpts from that interview. The transcript below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.


Tom Foley was born in Spokane 20-odd years before me. I was born in Pullman, but we both came out of the same culture in Eastern Washington. While some of the national poison has seeped in, I still find a lot of the values that brought us up are still here.

A while back, in Walla Walla, a half-dozen of us were sitting around a little fire just ruminating about life with the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. We were talking about everything under the sun, and he then said something that caught my attention. He said there’s only one shortcut to happiness. Well, that perked my ears up. We all want a shortcut to happiness.

He said there are any number of ways to find happiness. You can raise a good family as a loving parent or grandparent, you can be a great schoolteacher, or maybe be a coach. You can then look at the people you graduate and send on in life. I knew for myself that there are many ways to find happiness, like being on the top of Mount Spokane on a beautiful morning with the sun coming up far to the east and seeing how happy we all are that we have the Rocky Mountains between us and Washington, D.C. Thank God for that.

He told us that the one shortcut to happiness lies in serving others. He said as soon as you start serving others, there is a happiness that comes to you every single day.

There are a bunch of ways to look at your life. You can have the right degrees or go to the right schools. You can have played the right sports and you can work for the right companies. You can even have “vice president” or “president” written on your business card. But more important than those things is, what are people going to say when they are gathered around your grave site? What are they gonna remember about you? What life did you live?

If you serve others like Tom Foley did, then you will be remembered for the right reasons.

When I drive up from California and I cross the Columbia River, I am now back on home ground here in Washington state, just north of Umatilla, Oregon. When I look up, I see the “Tom Foley Highway” sign up there, and that is a reminder of the kind of man who built this country. We need to get back to that. Tom Foley’s example still resonates with me. We owe it to those who went before us to carry on that legacy.

I didn’t create this beautiful Eastern Washington, with its roads and its safety and its rolling wheat fields and its lumber and other industries – and all the blessings we have here. We owe it to the next generation to do our part, too. I am not saying I did a lot. I think I did about as much as anybody else – no more, no less. But when you get selfish, and you go narrow, that is not a healthy way to live.

The Tom Foley Institute prizes service that actually helps to teach service as a way of life. I want to do all I can to support that idea, because that is a worthy idea. The young people today, I almost feel sorry for them for so many of the bad examples they see on the national news. I want to see people like Tom Foley be remembered and be the example. More of us need to be working to turn this over to the next generation in better shape than we seem to be doing, so far. They will say it was a dishonest decade, but that we found our way back to the middle. The next generations will be reminded how lucky they are, and the older people will step aside and let the young leaders rise.

We will help them. We will always be there to coach them, but what we will really encourage them to do is to show the confidence in themselves to step up and keep this experiment that we call America alive for the generations that follow them. They need to know that what we are seeing right now, the kind of language we’re hearing out of Washington, D.C., is not normal. It is infantile behavior. We need leaders like Tom Foley. He would never have been caught dead doing these things or saying these things. If you are going to say something that your mother would wash your mouth out with soap for, then just don’t say it. And don’t listen to the people who are trying to egg you on to do that sort of thing.

There is good out there amongst all Americans, so search for it and find it and build a better country.

When we talk about Speaker Foley and his type of leadership, he could find ways to work with people across the aisle. We now call it bipartisanship, and he accepted that as key to democracy. One person doesn’t always get everything they want. That is not a democracy. There has to be compromise.

Today, some people look at compromise as a dirty word. It is important that we do not compromise on principle, but not everything people disagree with now is principle. A lot of it is just opinion, and we are not our opinions. We can change our opinions if there is data to support it.

I was brought up by the greatest generation. It was a sense amongst that generation that the country didn’t have to be perfect to be worth fighting for, to put it in the words of a World War II Marine. After all, we set up this experiment that we call America – and that is all it is, an experiment – to see if we could create a more perfect union, which assumes we were not perfect. It assumed we were going to have to travel the distance.

And guess what? In a government of the people, by the people, for the people, you are always going to be improving, and it is always going to be very hard work.

Tom Foley did that kind of hard work.