Before he thought inside a think tank, Andrew Exum's handwriting was neat, and his interest in violent abolitionist John Brown was just a tiny bit troubling.
"He was smart," said Dr. Michael Woodward, who taught Exum's history class at the McCallie School in the mid-1990s, "and I remember adding three other letters at the end of that."
Woodward made sure his old pupil got a little ribbing at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Wednesday night before he got his praise. Finally, Exum approached with a handshake and a quip.
"I wore this three-piece suit in an effort to project my authority," he told the crowd. "But I knew I wouldn't survive that introduction. No man is a prophet in his hometown."
Exum, whose family founded the News Free Press, is an Afghanistan and Iraq War veteran, a scholar on the Middle East and a special adviser at the Department of Defense. On Wednesday, he came home to discuss how Americans should think about the Arab Spring, but he started his speech with a "firm disclaimer" that he was not speaking on behalf of the government.
Exum told the audience that the style of revolutions in the Arab Spring was different from country to country, and its impact leaves countries with different needs.
Egypt's government has been relatively strong. Now it must show it can protect and respond to its people. Libya's government, on the other hand, has been weak. Now it must strengthen itself, creating branches like a ministry of social services, for example.
Exum also said the Arab Spring has affected U.S. interests in the region. The movement could weaken al-Qaida in the long term, as it shows moderate Muslim groups can gain power through elections rather than violence. At the same time, the region is unstable. Maybe terrorist groups can take advantage.
Also, Exum said, the revolution leaves many wondering what role the United States should play.
Exum doesn't know the right answer. Nobody really does.
That will come with time, he said.