Jack Matlock: Never Stop Learning
Published: December 4, 2013 (Issue # 1789)
Career diplomat Jack Matlock has befriended many world leaders, but perhaps none taught him a more important lesson than U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
“Reagan was the most impressionable student I ever had,” said Matlock, who served as Reagan’s top Soviet adviser before moving to Moscow in 1987 to serve as ambassador for four years. “He always appreciated having things explained to him. He was comfortable with his lack of knowledge, unlike some leaders.”
Matlock, 84, is also comfortable with the fact that he might not know something — but that does not mean he is content to leave it that way.
Matlock mastered five foreign languages during his 35-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, 11 of which saw him posted in Moscow. Those skills helped him understand complex situations, which in turn built his reputation for clear, timely reporting and insights — including being the first to predict that the Soviets would not invade Poland during the 1981 Solidarity uprising. At one point, he even found himself warning Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev of the impending 1991 coup attempt.
Matlock worked with Reagan and his team to implement their mission to bring down the Iron Curtain. But he knew what language to speak to accomplish the goal.
After leaving the State Department, Matlock spent 22 years at the highest levels of academia, teaching international relations and diplomacy while keeping the mantra of his intellectual quest in view. His mantra can be seen in a small font in the upper right-hand corner on his website: “Can we learn from experience?”
But his students and friends know it’s rhetorical. His learning shines through in his writings and commentary, including three books that he’s authored about his experiences. The themes are consistent: A little less meddling in sovereign affairs, a little more attention to the details of communication, and a little less publicity during discussions of sensitive topics will all go a long way to help any two parties achieve their goals, especially Russia and the U.S. today.
The learning never stops. Matlock earned his doctorate from Columbia University this year — an effort that he had started while still a graduate student there in 1952. He settled on an analysis of idiomatic expressions of 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, who was known for his ability to provide a comprehensive picture of contemporary society.
Many of Leskov’s fans, including Matlock, see the relevance of Leskov in how Russia functions today.
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