For more than 4 years Geoff Morrell was the very able Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, and the Press Secretary for the Department of Defense. He joined me this morning to discuss the challenges and opportunities ahead for General now Secretary Mattis:
HH: Special guest. For more than four years, Geoff Morrell was the very, very able deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. That means he was also the press secretary for the Department of Defense for Robert Gates. And he joins me this morning to talk about the challenges and the opportunities ahead for General, now Secretary Mattis. Geoff Morrell, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show. It’s really great to have you. Thank you for all those years of service. I appreciate it.
GM: Well, you’re a gentleman, Hugh. It was an honor to serve, especially with Bob Gates, for all those years. I miss it. It was a great time in my life. And I’m happy to be with you this morning.
HH: I ran into your former boss in a green room last week, and we chatted briefly, and it occurred to me then to reach out to you, because he was very, very good at communicating, and he is widely regarded by both sides of the aisle as among America’s preeminent public servants. A lot of that has to do because he had a strategy for communicating the right way. As you look at now-Secretary Mattis, General Mattis coming into his job, what are the biggest challenges? What are the biggest opportunities for him, for someone like you who is going to be behind the podium for him?
GM: Well, I had, I was lucky. I had the best client in the history of government, if you ask me. I mean, Bob Gates was a natural communicator. He understood the importance of it. In fact, as you may have seen, it’s been sort of in vogue lately, one of his first speeches after taking office was to go to the United States Naval Academy and say very clearly to the graduates there that to treat the press or the Congress, for that matter, as the enemy is self-defeating. So he understood the need to communicate regularly and honestly with the press. And he was able to quickly repair relations with the press. In fact, I told you this story briefly yesterday, Hugh, but I went to interview with him after being passed over by the White House for my job interview. And I thought it was going to be a grilling, put me through my paces to see if I was worthy of the job, when in fact, he said to me here are the five things I want from you. I don’t want a pit bull at the podium. I want to repair relations with the press and the Congress. I don’t know is a perfectly acceptable answer. Don’t BS them. They can tell. And he also thought that you were only as credible as you are seen to have access to him, so you need to be with him at his meetings and on his trips. And the last thing, and the sealer for me was I don’t want a yes man. Everybody salutes me and says yes, sir in this building. I need you to tell it to me like it is. So I think those are good lessons for whomever comes in to work with General, now-Secretary Mattis. Have access, be able to speak truth to power, and be very forthright and engaging with the press.
HH: Now Geoff Morrell, let’s talk generally about press secretaries and access. I’ve known a lot of them, going all the way back to Ron Ziegler, who I knew in retirement when I worked for President Nixon at the Elba of America, San Clemente. I knew them throughout the Reagan years in various department jobs, like Terry Eastland at Justice, and a variety of people. And I’ve known them since. You know, Tony Snow was a very good friend of mine. Sean Spicer is a friend of mine. It’s a tough job anywhere in any department, but at the Pentagon, it’s got to be overwhelming, because there’s so much to know, and very few civilians come equipped for at least even the acronym avalanche.
GM: Yes, but that’s why you have to very early on figure out what you can contribute and what you need to defer to others on. I knew very early on that I was never going to be a weapons system expert. I was never going to be an acquisition expert. I was never going to be a military strategist. The value added I could provide, and this is, I think, the key for all press secretaries, is knowing exactly where their boss’ head is on the key important issues. And my credibility totally derived from the fact that I was with Gates in all the key meetings. I was on all the trips. So they knew I was in the room. And what I said, they could take to the bank. So that, to me, is the keys here. Whatever agency, whatever secretary, whatever president you’re representing, you have to have proximity. You have to have access. And you have to really know what he’s thinking, and have the blessing to speak it.
HH: Would you explain to our friends in Wichita, and so slowly for our friends who are Steelers fans, what it means to be “in the room”? It’s a phrase that is used a lot, but it really does go over the heads of a lot of people. What are you talking about when you mean in the room?
GM: Well, it’s tough. I mean, the secretary’s schedule, and this is just my window on it, is back to back to back, every day, all day. So you can’t literally be with him all day. You have to pick and choose what are the key meetings that matter that you need to be a fly on the wall for, to understand the back and forth and how the secretary is coming to his decisions on various key issues. So one of the things that was told to me very early on by Gates was hey, I don’t want you to be the assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, which is running the giant Pentagon public affairs apparatus, which is huge, global in nature, people all over the place, dealing with all sorts of issues. He goes, I want you to be with me, and I want you to be with the press. Those are the two constituencies that you need to take care of. And that’s what I focused on, and as a result, I could spend time with him in the key meetings, and spend time with the press to understand their needs.
HH: Boy, what a strategic choice. I had dinner on Saturday night with an old colleague of Secretary Gates, goes by the name of Dan Poneman, who’s a very dear friend of mine.
HH: He told me that Dan could run through, that the secretary could run though, this was back in the NSC days, a stack of files and just basically call how every meeting would go, and just sort of a brilliant guy. And I assume Secretary Mattis is the same sort of way. So if you’re his press secretary, A) do you recommend that Secretary Mattis adopt the same model of deputy assistant secretary and press secretary so that you are having not to deal with that massive bureaucracy?
GM: I do, and I man, I have not been asked. I knew General Mattis from our days at the Pentagon. I’ve not been asked to consult in any way. He has good people around him. Sally Donnelly, a former Time Magazine correspondent, is the key advisor of Secretary Mattis. She’s smart on these issues. She will build a, he will build a strong team that is able to communicate in the manner that he is most comfortable with. But I’ll just give you a couple of insights into things that we did that I thought worked really well. One of the great things about being secretary is you travel around on what we call the E-4B. It’s an old command and control aircraft, 747, that he travels the world in, and it has 18 seats designated for the press. So he has a huge ability to ferry around a captive press corps, and really have an impact on them. And they will pay the money and come and go on all these sort of trips to sort of far off places, provided they know they’re going to get access every day on the record. So we structured trips that you were going to hear from Gates either at a bilateral press conference, or the counterpart from a given country as Mattis just did in Japan, or we was going to engage in, on the plane or in the hotel such that they had material every day. Feeding the beast, pardon the expression, is just important. There’s a transactional nature here between the press and government. The have stories to tell, column inches to fill, we have information we need to share. You have to work together.
HH: You know, I’ve always been critical of Bill Belichick, the Sith Lord Belichick, I call him, because there are journalists who have to work in that town who have to write Patriots copy every day.
GM: Yes. (laughing)
HH: And he doesn’t give them anything. It’s like it’s throwing bread crumbs to the sparrows when you work on the Patriots beat. How often do you think a secretary of Defense has to come out and provide substance for people like me? I mean, I’ve got one Mattis clip from this Japan thing. it’s 16 seconds long. I’m not getting enough from DOD, and all of the big issues are DOD, but it’s early. You know, I’m giving him some slack.
HH: How often do they have to show up?
GM: It’s early. The State Department hasn’t even briefed, yet. At least you’ve had Mattis on the record somewhere. And they have, to DOD’s defense, they have uniform communicators who are doing the day to day feeding of the press. But I think, our general rule was Gates should be on the record once a week, and I should fill in as needed. And we were one of those who believed that you shouldn’t get yourself necessarily on a schedule that you’re going to brief on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or God forbid, every day. We were going to brief when we had something to say. We weren’t going to waste their time or our time. So generally, we tried to do Gates once a week when he was in the Pentagon. When we were on the road, as I said, you were getting them every day. And I’ll tell you one more trick of the trade we had that I thought worked out extremely well that they may want to also consider. On every one of our trips, without fail, we took an hour to an hour to an hour and a half one night to do an off the record cocktail party with the press corps. And that was really about relationship development, trust development. And Gates was very candid in those sessions, and we never got burned. And it was a sign the press believed of his respect for them, and their respect for him that we were able to do this for four years without ever having anything leak out of it. So building those relationships is important.
HH: For the, that’s what it means. Never get burned means, and you said off the record, and you talked candidly about something, no one in that meeting from my side of the business would report what would have been said.
GM: Correct, exactly. There was mutual trust here, and that’s how you build a healthy working relationship with the press. And the Pentagon press corps, for General Mattis, as he knows from all his years there, is just different than other Washington press corps. They’re more long-standing, there’s less turnover in the beat, they’re very serious about what they cover, because there are life and lives at stake here. They understand the consequence of these issues.
HH: I’m going to be right back. Geoff Morrell agreed to stay a second segment, because I want to talk to him about social media and the new world order for any press secretary, especially someone as successful as he was at DOD for a department as important as the Department of Defense is.
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HH: Geoff, what I wanted to ask you about is social media. What changed in the last ten years is the rise of social media. When I had Secretary Rumsfeld on early in the war, I asked him what he thought about blogging and social media, and he said honestly, Hugh, I haven’t got any time to think about that. I’m at my stand up desk all day, what are you talking about. And now, there are novels about ISIS being able to track Twitter feeds back to the families of combatants. It’s a brave, new media world. What did you and the Secretary think about this? And what is your advice to the incoming DOD staff serving the new Secretary Mattis?
GM: Yeah, we were just on the, just in the midst of all that sort of changing where social media as an accessible tool for government communication was sort of being tried out and deployed in some departments. We were, in some ways, spoiled, and I know that sounds crazy, Hugh, but the wars, as you’ll recall, were the animating story of the day. There was no other story that trumped the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan for the four years that I was at the Pentagon, and for that matter, you know, the search for bin Laden. So we never were hurting for being able to get our story out. And we never felt as though going through the filter of the Pentagon press corps in any way sort of watered down the information we were trying to impart. So we never quite found the need for us to do it, and in fact, I think we thought at the time that it may have been a little bit, this again doesn’t sound perfect, but unseemly or beneath the Department and the consequence of the issues that we were working to communicate them in that manner, through 140 characters or whatever. We used it occasionally, but not on heavy things, more on sort of colorful things than big, consequential things. But the game is changing, so I, my, what, my experience may not be relevant or workable today.
HH: Second question, among the uniforms, General Petraeus called into this show from Iraq. General Abizaid called into this show from Iraq. General McChrystal came on after he had left the military and spent a lot of time with me. General Mattis has never, either in uniform or out, done this show, nor does he like civilian media, as far as I can tell. I’ve been in briefings with him off the record at Hoover. Generally, what do military men and women need to know about the press? And they approach it with such suspicion, because I guess there’s no upside for them to do press.
GM: Well, you and I could do a whole show on this one. I mean, you know, if you’re an observant military leader, as General Mattis was, you could look around and see many very capable general officers who got tripped up through their engagements with the press. I mean, just his peers alone, you look at Fox Fallon on Iran, and McChrystal on Afghanistan. I mean, there are, these are heavyweights who fell prey to, you know, seemingly innocuous engagements with the press. And I think part of it was, as you alluded to, the fact that we were losing the communications war to al Qaeda. And to his credit, General Petraeus moved the whole communications operation in support of his war fighting from the Pentagon to Baghdad so it would be closer to the action. And he understood the need to try to build up a narrative that there was success on the ground in Iraq, even as the DC press corps couldn’t see it. So there was a method to the madness, if you will. But he was brilliant at it, although ultimately, he ran into some trouble as a result of it. Every, some people tried to copy it to less success, and others, perhaps General Mattis, saw it and said you know what? It’s just not worth, the upside is not worth the downside to me. Mattis is a traditional war fighter. He’s focused on military strategy, on the relationships with allies, and the need to get the war fighting done. He’s not out there seeking the spotlight. Obviously, that’s going to have to adjust to some degree for the new responsibilities, but I’m confident he’ll figure out the right balance. He’s going to have civilian advisors around him. Sally Donnelly, as I mentioned, is very smart and attuned to these things. It’s early. I think he’ll figure it out.
HH: I hope he brings you and all the former DOD heavyweights from the lectern in for a half day about this, and that he brings his senior uniformed advisors, every command and control, every command at Central Command, etc., at SOCAM, to talk about this, because it’s so vital that they communicate well as you did. Geoff Morrell, thanks for a fascinating conversation this morning, a half hour of your busy schedule. I appreciate it very much. Thanks for your service at the Pentagon as well with Secretary Gates.
End of interview.