Sadly absent in the din is a voice of uncommon brilliance and unfailing sobriety: Bill Odom. A retired Army lieutenant general and former head of the National Security Agency, William E. Odom died May 30 after a long and distinguished career in American public service. Odom had a keen grasp of the possible, and recognized that you didn’t accomplish much by slapping people in public. When I asked him in late 2006 how he would handle the mullahs of Iran, for instance, his response characterizes the American approach to the world at its best: “We’re big guys. We can talk to them.”
I’ll bet he had the same sentiments toward China on the occasion of its first Olympic games. He recognized that big guys didn’t begrudge others their successes, and that magnanimity and grace went a long way.
With chemical runoff polluting farmlands in Tai Hu and other high‐profile cases of environmental degradation, China is surely not without blemish, and labor abuses are still pervasive. But what country has industrialized without upheaval? In Massachusetts in the 1830s, the workers who built the Lawrence and Lowell canals were not blessed with competitive medical plans, but they too bore great indignities in hopes of a better life.
Odom understood that you can’t solve every problem at once, and that you should concentrate your efforts where they accomplish the most. He also understood that countries can’t create constitutional regimes out of thin air. “Remember back in the Carter years, that list of states we were told were ‘developing democracies?’ ” he once asked some former colleagues at an event at the Hudson Institute. “Mexico? Pakistan? Well, they’re still developing, aren’t they?”
In China, too, politics may not look like a town hall meeting, but who can say that they’re not moving in the right direction? In 2007, China enacted remarkable new protections for private property, and though enforcement still leaves much to be desired, for the first time, rural Chinese have the basis for legal recourse against officials and companies that appropriate or pollute their lands.
As a servant of elected leaders, Odom’s rough edges were never smoothed over by the demands of elected office itself, and that made him indispensable: He was a voice of unwashed reason.