The inspiration of Chris Battle

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 178 views 

This morning in Alexandria, Virginia, a memorial service will be held to honor Christopher Lee Battle. Chris, as he was known to all his friends, died earlier this month after a 4 year fight against kidney cancer. Chris was 45 years old when he died, yet for such a short life span he lived a very full life.

Chris was a writer, but he was so much more than that. Paul Greenberg wrote an editorial-obituary entitled “Death of a Young Writer,” – an encomium about his former editorial-writing colleague at the Democrat-Gazette – where he captured Chris precisely the way we all knew him to be: “Chris spoke — and wrote — in the measured phrases of those who enjoy their craft, delight in it, play with it, turn it this way and that till it might even become an art. Which was his goal. Yes, his speech was as well-measured as his editorials. Yet you couldn't help but feel that he was really measuring you, though he did his best to conceal it, being so polite.”

Although he was born in Wichita, Kan., and spent a significant part of his youth in Florida, Chris fell in love with Arkansas when he was a student at the University. He got his bachelors and masters’ degrees in Fayetteville and then he went to work for the Northwest Arkansas Times as a reporter, eventually covering the political beat. That is where I first came to know him. When Asa Hutchinson was elected to Congress in November 1996, Chris and I moved to Washington as part of Asa’s initial staff.

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 Arkansas came to know the same sentiment that I cherish. Many of them knew him through the various political engagements where he was involved. Others know him because of his writing, whether they were editorials for the Democrat-Gazette or his own personal struggles with the medical system through the Kidney Cancer Chronicles, which he and his devoted wife, Dena, created. If anyone going through the fears and frustrations of cancer treatment needs inspiration, it can be found in their marvelous essays.

When we first went to Washington, 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 and, in doing so, opened to 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. 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 the Department of Homeland Security and President Bush tapped Asa Hutchinson to be the first UnderSecretary for 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, and 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 in that election, Chris moved back to Washington and joined the cutting edge public relations firm now known as the Adfero Group. He 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.

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. That fight ended on Aug. 8, 2013 when we received word that he had passed away.

Chris Battle’s life was far too short, yet his legacy in Arkansas and in the rest of the nation will live for decades to come. I know in the deepest recesses of my heart that last phrase is not a cliché. Chris Battle lived life to the fullest. All of us are sad that he has left our midst so early, yet we are so much better for his having crossed our pathways.

As a writer, Chris 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 (his wife and fellow-soldier in battling his cancer,) and his two daughters, Kate and Josie. They strengthened him every day. He saw each of us as the flawed, fascinating, fellow-inhabitants that we are and was still our friend.

As we honor Chris’ memory this morning – this hot, humid August morning near the nation’s capital  – 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 made a positive difference in Arkansas and in the world. We are better people for you having shared your life with us.