Navy secretary Ray Mabus well-satisfied with his meandering career

Published 11:01 am Tuesday, September 27, 2016

One night, Ray Mabus was on the veranda of the presidential palace in Mexico City observing that nation’s independence day fireworks with the president of Mexico. The next he was in Mississippi to announce that two to-be-minted Navy ships will bear the names of Medal of Honor recipients from his home state.

Mabus, who turns 68 in October, is nearing the end of a nomadic career in public service.

He grew up in Ackerman, graduated from Ole Miss, earned a master’s from Johns Hopkins and left Harvard Law with a magna cum laude degree.

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It was all because, he said with humility, he was fortunate to grow up in a family that valued knowledge and education.

After serving as a staffer to the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, he was tapped to join the administration of William Winter in 1979. During Winter’s tenure, he was tagged as one of the governor’s “Boys of Spring,” a term that aptly described Winter’s young, energetic, positive and upbeat staff.

The next stop for Mabus was the statewide elected position of Auditor of Public Accounts. That served as a springboard, as it has for others, into the Governor’s Mansion. He was 39, the youngest governor in America.

Four years later, Mississippi voters ended their string of more than a century of Democratic governors by opting for Kirk Fordice. That sent Mabus back into federal service as President Bill Clinton’s choice for ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, Mabus jumped ship (sorry) from the Clinton armada and endorsed and worked for the election of a largely unknown junior senator from Illinois. Pundits and experts nationwide were saying there was no way a first-termer could out-politick the Clintons, that this Barack Obama guy was no match for Hillary. But we know how that turned out, don’t we?

Mabus’ reward from the new president was appointment as the civilian head of the U.S. Navy and, with that, the Marine Corps.

The coming change in administrations (Hillary Clinton would definitely not reappoint him) means, if nothing else, an exit for Mabus. He said he would leave before the end of President Obama’s term, but that’s protocol. Regardless, he’s the longest-serving Secretary of the Navy since World War I.

His position with the military is administrative, not tactical. No uniforms, ribbons, salutes. But what he described as a “cool” perk is authority to name ships. Some classes of naval vessels are categorized – subs, for example, are named for states. Sometimes “memos” come from Congress with “suggestions.” But otherwise, Mabus said, from the days of George Washington, secretaries have done the naming.

Some will remember that Mabus made headlines for some of his 86 choices. There was a protest when support vessels were named for Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay elected official, and for Cesar Chavez, activist who created a union for farm workers. There was no protest, however, and hopefully there was even some sense of justice when, early in his tenure, Mabus announced that a cargo ship would be named for Medgar Evers, who was murdered in Jackson in 1963 while working for voting rights.

There will certainly be no protests over the yet-to-be-built destroyers, the Jack Lucas and the Louis Wilson.

Lucas was under-age when he faked his way into the Marines. He was about to be sent home to Hattiesburg when he stowed away on a ship. As it happened, the ship was leaving Hawaii for a place called Iwo Jima. During the assault, Lucas grabbed two incoming grenades and shoved them down into the volcanic sand, saving the lives of all around him. After being discharged from the Marines, Lucas joined the Army and fought in Europe. When he returned to Mississippi, he resumed his education — in the ninth grade.

Wilson, of Brandon, demonstrated valor on Guam when his company dug in and defeated a larger and better-armed enemy force. Wilson remained in the service, rose through the ranks and later served as commandant of the Marine Corps.

All though much of his past has been in politics, Mabus said he doesn’t think any of his future will be —  at least not in any elected or appointed post. He logged 1.3 million miles in his current job and plans to spend more time with his family. Perhaps, he said, they will no longer require him to wear a name tag at family events.

Advice for his home state? Unchanged: Focus on education. Even the military has no jobs for “strong bodies and weak minds” anymore, he said.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.