The thermometer in the rental car yesterday said it was 101 degrees – and the car was sitting in the shade outside the uniquely Southern architecture of the airport terminal in Savannah, Ga. My first thought as I tried to put the situation into context was that Chris hated cold weather and that he would find the weather to his liking. Or was it hot weather he didn’t like?
Alas, I cannot remember, and it bothers me because I know this will not be the last thing that I want to – but will not be able to – remember about Chris Battle, whose funeral was held this morning in the heat and humidity, which are a part of every August in southeastern Georgia. Chris’s resting place is the Bonaventure Cemetery – a place he picked out and so poignantly wrote about last year when he came to this place of Spanish moss-lined roadways and contemplated eternal truths.
Two of those truths are that we mortals cannot do much, if anything, about the actual weather conditions, nor our own mortality. There are some things, no matter how unfair or unrelenting they may be, that we cannot change and that we have to accept – and today is one of those days when the messages just smack me in the face.
Although I knew of him because of his newspaper writing, I didn’t actually meet Chris Battle until a warm fall day in 1996, during Asa Hutchinson’s campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. I was accompanying Asa on a trip across the northern part of Arkansas, and he had informed me as we pulled into Fayetteville that we would be picking up a reporter from the Northwest Arkansas Times to go with us. The reporter’s name was Chris Battle, and Asa was hopeful that Chris would become a part of the staff Asa took to Washington, should he be elected.
The Times, I thought? Why would we want someone from that well-known liberal rag to ride along with us? Didn’t Asa know that of all the papers in the state, they were the most well-known (at that time) for “gotcha” journalism? Didn’t he know that the editor was no friend of right-leaning (then known as “right thinking”) Republicans? Why in the world would we want an underpaid, probably ill-informed reporter from The Times to go along with us? Not only was Asa’s decision puzzling to me, back then I worked for the company that owned newspapers that competed with The Times, and I didn’t think much of their style of journalism. This didn’t feel like it was going to turn out well.
It wasn’t the first time, and is sure won’t be the last, but my concerns that day were completely off base. I could not have been more wrong. Hallelujah for that! It was one of the many areas where Chris Battle taught me to avoid making assumptions and to be patient and learn who someone really is before you make any lasting judgments.
Meeting Chris Battle that day in 1996 and having the opportunities to work by his side on Capitol Hill; to work on common issues and a shared mission when the Department of Homeland Security stood up; to become his client when he was at Adfero; and, best of all, to call him my friend for the past 16 years is one of the best things that ever happened to me – and I am not alone in that feeling. Countless scores of people across the country have come to know the same sentiment that I cherish. Many of them are here in Savannah today. Others will be at an upcoming memorial service in Alexandria, Va. We are far better human beings because we had an opportunity to know Chris Battle as our friend, our mentor, our inspiration and the commentator on life around us.
Others can and will describe Chris as a professional colleague, a political advisor, a writing phenom, a guidance counselor, messenger, humorist, medical guinea pig (more like a medical adventurer), and a visionary. Paul Greenberg penned an editorial obituary in this past Sunday’s Little Rock Democrat-Gazette that is as fine a description of Chris’ life and character as I’ve ever read about anyone. The pieces my colleagues Rich Cooper and Justin Hienz wrote for this site were magnificent in helping others understand what made Chris Battle a special man. Yet, the description he loved best was “father of Kate and Josie, and husband of Dena.” But I am jumping ahead.
When Asa was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Chris and I sat four carpet squares apart. If you’ve ever worked on the Hill, you know exactly what I mean. Each carpet square was one square foot. The importance of your position was (mistakenly) measured by how many carpet squares you could acquire in your work space. Chris needed more work area than other staffers because he required more equipment – he was, after all, the communications director, although we didn’t call him that. To us, Chris Battle was then, and will always be known as, “Press Boy.”
We worked long hours, yet found time to share many stories, laughs and frustrations. Chris was a scholar, although he tried to hide it. He spoke Chinese and had a solid background in economics. He was a student of political science and understood how to develop solid strategies before engaging in tactical efforts. Because of him, Asa Hutchinson had the first electronic bulletin board of any member of Congress. The quaint-thinking, risk-averse, desk-sitters in the House Franking Office didn’t understand what Chris was doing, but he had the patience to explain his vision to them in a way that didn’t violate too many of the arcane House mailing rules and, in doing so, opened the door to the ubiquitous electronic communications platforms (sometimes called e-mail) that permeate Capitol Hill today.
Where Chris really developed his national reputation was during the House impeachment hearings and eventual Senate trial of President Bill Clinton, whose brother, Roger, Asa Hutchinson had prosecuted years before when Asa was U.S. Attorney in Western Arkansas. Chris helped guide Asa’s public comments and the ensuing coverage in such a way that was consistent with Asa’s philosophy to be legally sound, unambiguously focused on factual evidence, and politically sensitive to concerns “back home.” National reporters, editors and producers came to know Chris at that time, and I never knew of a single one who didn’t come away from their encounter with anything other than admiration and respect for Chris’ interactions with them. He always remembered that he too was once a reporter and let them know that he understood what it meant for them to do their job, even as he was a master at his own.
When Asa was asked to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chris helped him transform the agency’s public outreach campaign and congressional communications programs and, after much internal debate, even convinced Asa to be a guest on cable programs, which were viewed by many people who espoused the legalization of certain classes of drugs. It was a bold move, inspired by Chris’ vision that the only way to communicate with the “target” audience is to talk directly to them and to use their communications channels to do so. What is commonplace today was considered revolutionary back then – and it was Chris’ vision, thorough preparation and persistence, that made it work.
Following the horrible terrorist events of September 11, 2001, Congress created DHS and President Bush tapped Asa Hutchinson to be the first UnderSecretary for the Borders and Transportation Security Directorate. Asa reached out to Chris, who was then writing editorials for the Little Rock newspaper, to help stand up the communications and public affairs operation for the Directorate and eventually Chris transitioned to lead ICE Public Affairs, where he rose to become Chief of Staff. Here Chris really came into his own and demonstrated that even in a law-enforcement oriented agency, accountability and public support improve with open and honest communications with stakeholders, auditors, employees, Congress, and the American taxpayers. It was a difficult task and Chris’ energy and vision were tested at every turn. Yet, once again, he earned the admiration and respect of those with whom he worked –which was not easy considering most of the law-enforcement types have a high suspicion and deep distrust of anyone who talks with the press.
Eventually Chris moved back to Arkansas and into the political arena, running the campaign operations for Asa’s gubernatorial race. When Asa came up short, Chris was trying to decide what to do and was asked to interview for the position of head of DHS Public Affairs. Chris told me it was a very tempting offer, but he was more interested in the private sector after having given so much of his professional career to public service. We analyzed the options. After being courted by several large firms, Chris joined the cutting-edge firm now known as Adfero Group. He liked their size and their culture. He especially liked their initiative in building public awareness campaigns using new media outlets, such as blogs, social-media conduits like Facebook and Twitter, and other forms of electronic communications, all while keeping an expertise in traditional media. Plus, they told him he could create a business around homeland security and that seemed to be the icing on the cake. He accepted and never looked back.
From his vision for a homeland security public affairs practice, Security Debrief was born. Adfero became a trusted advisor to private sector companies and public agencies. Chris’ vision (there’s that word again), prodigious work ethic, patience and his ability to build a team of smart and forward-thinking practitioners was supported by his Adfero partners and it was (and is) a success.
Then came the call that Chris had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. I was at the hospital the day the operation was performed to remove what doctors thought was the one diseased kidney. He had one to spare, and it gave us something else in common. We were both members of the “One Kidney Club” – mine by birth, his by virtue of a surgeon’s scalpel. What we didn’t know at the time, but learned all too late, was that removing Chris’ kidney didn’t rid his body of the renal cell carcinoma that would eventually get the best of him – but not without a fight.
There is no reason repeating the wonderful stories that Chris and Dena shared with all of us as they and their family battled the cancer enemy. I have not met one person who didn’t admit to laughing and crying, almost at the same time, as I did when I read about each encounter with the medical teams who treated Chris. There will be a book, I trust, which will tell their story, their narrative, their hope and their fears. It is only right that one of the best story-writers I’ve ever known should be honored in this manner, for Chris understood the power of a good story to motivate people, to change policy, to affect politics and to punctuate emotions at just the right place and time.
At 45, Chris Battle’s life was far too short, yet his legacy will live for decades to come. Standing in Bonaventure Cemetery, I know in the deepest recesses of my heart that last phrase is not a cliché. Chris Battle lived life to the fullest.
As a writer, Chris, more than anyone his age, had the talent, insight and ability to capture in words the pictures that resonated in our minds. He saw weirdness and through his words he helped us to be more human. He saw irony and in his stories he helped us to appreciate universal truths. He saw pain and sadness and through the circumstances in which he lived, he helped us to find joy in learning about the contributions of others. He saw the terminal diagnosis of kidney cancer and quietly drew strength from his faith. He saw the pettiness of many in his profession, and yet never once descended into the pit with them. He saw the difficulty many have in maintaining relationships, yet openly shared with us the unconditional love from Dena, Kate and Josie that strengthened him every day. He saw each of us as the flawed, fascinating, fellow-inhabitants that we are and was still our friend.
As I stand here this morning – this hot, humid August morning near the marshes that transform briny seawater into fresh water from which we sustain our own lives – it is a time to celebrate and grieve; to laugh and weep; to remember and remember some more. Thank you, Christopher Lee Battle, for the inspiration you gave us. You, our dear friend, made a positive difference in the world.