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Jack Matlock: Never Stop Learning

Published: December 4, 2013 (Issue # 1789)



  • Maximizing knowledge and providing insights were key to Matlocks success.
    Photo: Igor Tabakov / SPT

Career diplomat Jack Matlock has befriended many world leaders, but perhaps none taught him amore important lesson than U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was themost impressionable student I ever had, said Matlock, who served as Reagans top Soviet adviser before moving toMoscow in1987 toserve as ambassador forfour years. He always appreciated having things explained tohim. He was comfortable with his lack ofknowledge, unlike some leaders.

Matlock, 84, is also comfortable with thefact that he might not know something but that does not mean he is content toleave it that way.

Matlock mastered five foreign languages during his 35-year career inthe U.S. Foreign Service, 11 ofwhich saw him posted inMoscow. Those skills helped him understand complex situations, which inturn built his reputation forclear, timely reporting andinsights including being thefirst topredict that theSoviets would not invade Poland during the1981 Solidarity uprising. Atone point, he even found himself warning Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ofthe impending 1991 coup attempt.

Matlock worked with Reagan andhis team toimplement their mission tobring down theIron Curtain. But he knew what language tospeak toaccomplish thegoal.

After leaving theState Department, Matlock spent 22 years atthe highest levels ofacademia, teaching international relations anddiplomacy while keeping themantra ofhis intellectual quest inview. His mantra can be seen ina small font inthe upper right-hand corner onhis website: Can we learn fromexperience?

But his students andfriends know its rhetorical. His learning shines through inhis writings andcommentary, including three books that hes authored about his experiences. Thethemes are consistent: Alittle less meddling insovereign affairs, alittle more attention tothe details ofcommunication, anda little less publicity during discussions ofsensitive topics will all go along way tohelp any two parties achieve their goals, especially Russia andthe U.S. today.

Thelearning never stops. Matlock earned his doctorate fromColumbia University this year aneffort that he had started while still agraduate student there in1952. He settled onan analysis ofidiomatic expressions of19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, who was known forhis ability toprovide acomprehensive picture ofcontemporary society.

Many ofLeskovs fans, including Matlock, see therelevance ofLeskov inhow Russia functions today.

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Friday, Apr. 18


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Monday, Apr. 21


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Tuesday, Apr. 22


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