The last time I saw this much excitement about a celebrity speaker in Princeton’s venerable McCosh Hall was when Cindy Crawford came, some 20 years ago, to talk about women’s body images. Admiral Mike Mullen, the four-star admiral who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the man who advises the president on war and peace, visited the university’s Woodrow Wilson School on Thursday, February 5, when more than 300 people lined up in the cold to hear a major policy address, “Global Trends and National Security.”
They were – and I was – eager to hear his thoughts on Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan, China, NATO, Mexico, Korea, wherever – to hear anything that could put this mixed-up world in perspective.
And as a former Army wife, I was eager to see how a four-star admiral would address a potentially hostile civilian audience. Mullen was Class of ’68 at the Naval Academy, which makes him a half-dozen years younger than my husband’s West Point classmates. I guessed that the man who holds the highest military rank in the nation (second only to the President and the Secretary of Defense, and those guys don’t wear uniforms) would look like a Greek god and talk like John F. Kennedy.
In came the entourage. The least-likely looking naval officer took the stage, not the blonde, handsome one, but the one with the thinning hair and glasses. Lithe like an athlete (which he is, a swimmer and lifter), he had the look of a professor (thoughtful, mild), and the aplomb of, well, an admiral (photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley.)
Without notes, he talked for 40 minutes, and took nearly a dozen questions. I admired his humanity, his common sense, his wide-ranging knowledge, his concern for the troops — and his style. I was also vastly relieved. Here was a Person in Charge who made sense.
Opening with an anecdote about how he’d always wanted to come to Princeton to play basketball with Bill Bradley, Mullen referred to his growing up in the Hollywood scene. According to an NPR interview, his mother was at one time an assistant to Jimmy Durante and his father was a press agent who hobnobbed with the stars and developed relationships with the likes of Hedda Hopper. I can see that in him. He kept talking about his relationship with his opposite numbers in Pakistan, in China, Korea, Russia, everywhere. Relationships (another word for that is charm) are the bread of butter for any good press agent, and he apparently learned about that at his father’s knee.
For all of what Mullen said, see my verbatim notes, online as a Google doc, but here’s what struck me.
Mullen’s most intriguing idea: That career government employers — beyond the military, the Peace Corps, and the diplomatic service – should have an opportunity for overseas service. Under what he calls a “whole-government approach,” careerists in such federal departments as commerce, transportation, or agriculture would be shipped out to contribute their expertise. Current examples include farmers in the National Guard, who are agriculture mentors, but they could just as well be civilians.
His scariest observation: That the global financial crises will produce unrest, and we have absolutely no idea where that will break out.
His most comforting point: That he promises to take care of the soldiers and their families. He praises the current force, opposes the draft, and has reduced the 15 month tours to 12 months on, 12 months off.
(I’m also curious about how Mullen, as a Naval officer, experienced his own assignments where his family didn’t accompany him. In peacetime at least, Army and Air Force families generally get to have more time with their soldiers, because usually they can live near the duty station. But even in peacetime, Navy ships go to sea for long periods of time, and on Navy pay it’s nigh unto impossible to meet your sailor in every port.) Maybe stints of 12 months seem normal to him. They seem pretty tough to me.
Mullen emphasized to the civilian audience about how his job is to follow orders from the president, yet he has been accused of being too political. I say, when you are trying to win over a civilian audience in a time of war, you’d darn sight better come across as caring and earnest, and if that sounds political, so be it. That goes for his dealings with four-star officers in other countries. Glamor might sell lipstick and furniture, but when you are pitching a peaceful alternative to war, relationships count.