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News / Northwest

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis accepts WSU’s inaugural Thomas S. Foley Award for Distinguished Public Service

By Amanda Sullender, The Spokesman-Review
Published: April 10, 2024, 7:37am

SPOKANE — In accepting the first Thomas S. Foley Award for Distinguished Public Service, former Secretary of Defense and retired general James Mattis on Tuesday called on those in the audience to reject political division and cynicism for this country.

“I trust some of you young folks in the audience will leave tonight refusing to adopt the childish practices you see too often on our television screens. Rather, resolving to embrace the courage, the conviction, the civility and the dignity of Tom Foley,” Mattis said during the award presentation by Washington State University’s Foley Institute . The award was given at the John J. Hemmingson Center on the Gonzaga University campus.

Before retiring in 2013, Mattis served over 40 years in the United States military, including as a general at the highest levels in the U.S. Marine Corps. Mattis was called back into service as Secretary of Defense under former President Donald Trump. He later resigned and broke from Trump in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Mattis is also a native son of Washington, having been born in Pullman and graduated from Central Washington University. In accepting the award, Mattis said he hoped he was a good steward for the legacy of Tom Foley, whom he called “one of the finest citizens our state ever produced.”

The only Speaker of the House from Washington state, the late Congressman served 30 years. A member of the Democratic Party, Foley was Speaker from 1989 to 1995.

Mattis called Foley the “quintessential American patriot,” who put his country before his party and his personal interest. He specifically cited Foley’s roll in shepherding the Americans with Disabilities Act through Congress in the 1990s.

“You see this same theme in him looking at people who are left behind on the margins of our society and bringing them inside and giving them a level playing field,” he said.

In Mattis’ view, Foley was also an example of a public servant who actively seeks to work with those opposed to him. Calling such bipartisanship a “lost art” in today’s politics, Mattis hopes he is a representative of that same ethos.

“Tom Foley had a worldview that just one generation ago dominated America. It is amazing and can even be a bit discouraging, though, to see how much our political climate has degraded in the past year,” he said.

In introducing the general, inventor and entrepreneur Ed Schweitzer of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories said Mattis had “earned a reputation for technical brilliance and humility.”

“It’s fitting and proper that General Mattis, a man who has dedicated his life to public service into protecting and defending the values of democracy and our Constitution, should be the first recipient,” Schweitzer said.

More than his military career, Schweitzer pointed to when Mattis spoke out against President Trump amid civil unrest seen in 2020. At the time, Mattis called Trump “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.”

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“There was a time when our country felt divided, angry, hopeless. Many of our political leaders use their platforms to inflame tensions. Others remained silent and said nothing at all. General Mattis spoke out in support of national unity and civil liberties,” Schweitzer said at the ceremony.

Mattis only referred to his former boss indirectly. Praising the late 5th district Congressman, Mattis said Foley did not “whine like a baby” and contest the result when losing his seat in 1994 by a mere 4,000 votes — an oblique reference to Trump’s debunked election fraud claims.

At the center of Mattis’ message was for Americans to reject disunity.

“At home, we see Americans engaging in contempt for each other and seemingly unaware of the delight they create in Bejing and Moscow — hoping Americans will turn cynical and lose their selfless spirit,” he said.

It was a message WSU senior and Foley Institute intern Nicholas Wong called “inspiring” for someone who wants a career in public service.

“Mattis very much spoke to the idea of just being human and how it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, we all want largely the same stuff,” he said. “It felt like he was semi-directly talking to me. It means a lot to hear from a person of his position to not be cynical when it comes to our country.”

Speaking at news conference before the event, Mattis also declined to provide his opinion on the possibility his former boss may win the presidency again this fall. Asked what a Trump victory would mean for the country, Mattis said that retired generals should also “retire their tongues” when it comes to politics.

Mattis on VA crisis

During his tenure as Secretary of Defense in 2017, Mattis was involved in the decision to have the VA adopt the same electronic health system as the Department of Defense. Transition to this first system was first implemented in 2020 at Spokane’s Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center. Since then, The Spokesman-Review has reported on flaws in the new electronic health system causing multiple patient deaths and harm to veterans receiving care.

Mattis admitted he was not aware of these issues, but defended the decision to create a single electronic health system between active-duty veterans and those receiving healthcare from the VA.

“The idea was if someone left the military after four years or 24 years or 44 years, they didn’t have to start over. Their name, their social security, their rank. In other words, we simply keep the system that keeps the military going and pick that up and take it forward into the VA system — building on what was already a body of medical knowledge of that individual,” he said at the news conference.

While admitting difficulties occur when a new system is implemented, Mattis also defended current Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough as the right man to fix any problems that may exist.

“If anyone can straighten this out, that’s the Secretary of the VA. He’s very experienced. He knows what he is doing. He will not be deflected by hard problems, he will overcome them,” he said.