Note: Michael Epperson died on September 30, 2013. His presence is greatly missed. His example of service is timeless and can be of use to many people—including those who did not have the privilege of knowing him in life.
Where are the leaders now?
Amid the latest government shutdown in Washington, D.C., many of us are shaking our heads in amazement at the still-unfolding leadership failures of the American president and Congress.
Something else happened in Washington last week that is a reminder that there are servant leaders and patriots in our midst.
As recounted in the Washington Post, the distinguished CIA officer G. Michael Epperson, who died suddenly and unexpectedly, left a legacy of service that reflects our best national traditions.
I am privileged to have called him a friend over the course of three decades, just entering the fourth.
A Talent for Friendship
When I reflect on Michael’s legacy, I think of his impact on others through relationships.
Michael crafted a talent for friendship. He tended to relationships, took them seriously. He had a variety of friends, in many places, of many backgrounds and viewpoints. He created a network—not in a calculating, self-interested sense. One could depend that he would make himself available in tough times.
He brought all manner of people together. Through Michael, for example, I was privileged to get to know and work with my valued friend and colleague, Brian Runkel. So, too, Michael became close to my longtime friend Richard Smith. Various friendships would be created and connected through his current of positive energy.
Michael Epperson brings to mind Emerson’s dictum: “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”
Un Homme Serieux
Sometimes one turns to a foreign language for the right words. Epperson was un homme serieux.
He came of age at the height of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. The Second World War had never really ended; it merely morphed into new channels. Many have forgotten just how contingent things were at many points in that struggle. The possibility of nuclear war was quite real. And there was no end in sight.
Michael was determined from youth to find a way to serve in those challenging times. His chosen path was national intelligence. His preparation through formal education was as rigorous as statecraft was serious.
In But Not Of
Looking at Michael Epperson’s career in its totality, one might be forgiven for assuming it was predestined, a natural path. In fact, looking forward from the vantage point he had at the beginning, it was anything but.
Unlike today, when he came of age law school was regarded as a natural option for anyone aiming for a leadership role in the public service. The models were largely from the World War II generation. John McCloy was an exemplar of the lawyer-statesman. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, viewed as the father of modern American intelligence, was a corporate lawyer. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, former CIA Director William Colby could be seen strolling down Connecticut Avenue, having returned to private law practice in Washington.
By contrast, the Cold War did not disrupt arrangements and open up needs for service to the extent of the total mobilization of World War II. If Michael were to combine such career paths, it would require a great amount of discipline and hard work, as well as the capacity to be prepared for his opportunity, should it come. Given the nature of his goal, he had to rely heavily on his own counsel.
Like most Harvard Law graduates, Epperson moved into corporate practice. He joined the Washington office of a highly respected firm, Bell, Boyd and Lloyd. He earned a partnership there.
All the while, he continued serving and learning and growing in various ways beyond his practice. The law is a jealous mistress, yet Michael was determined to negotiate an arrangement on his own terms. As he confided to me during law school, he would strive to live below his means as a lawyer. He observed that Washington was full of attorneys who entered their field with an idealistic, adventurous streak, only to succumb to the temptations of extravagant lifestyles that would render their careers conventional, fungible.
When his opportunity came, Epperson was prepared. His subsequent public service earned him the highest positions of responsibility and peer recognition in the intelligence field.
A casual observer might wonder if G. Michael Epperson was a bit hard to take, if his accomplishments made him unapproachable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Epperson was invariably of good humor. He had a sharp wit which he wielded with care and discretion.
Michael was a longstanding fan of James Bond movies (and, for him, Sean Connery would always be the James Bond). That affinity was widespread in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, with special meaning in the Cold War that is lost today. In the early pictures, the fictional character’s bon vivant lifestyle was undertaken amid chaos, with violence and death as unwelcome companions. The omnipresent Cold War threat of unprecedented mass destruction amid moral ambiguity was an experience shared by everyone in the audience.
Against that backdrop, it was no surprise to his friends when newly-minted lawyer Epperson sported an Alfa Romeo convertible. It represented what he had worked for—and foreshadowed his vision of the future.
Amid all his accomplishments and activity, Michael put his role as family man above all else. He and his former wife Kay so often achieved the improbable. They exhibited a notable, inspiring capacity to attain worldly success, at the same time as they created and nurtured a strong family. That would be a challenge at any time, in any place. But these have not been ordinary times, and the world they moved in was often a dangerous place.
Michael would no doubt be the first to remind us that every member of their family served our nation. His service was simply the most conspicuous from the outside.
Needless to say, Michael’s love and wonder and commitment to Ian, Trevor, and Colin are memorable. It’s apt to employ the present tense, because that love remains vital. That each has chosen to follow aspects of their father’s example is an extraordinary tribute to a relationship that G. Michael Epperson undoubtedly regarded as his greatest source of fulfillment—and his most enduring legacy.
Michael Epperson, RIP