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Rhetorical Recap: Rex Tillerson's Rueful Roar

Last week, two months after being fired as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson broke his public silence and delivered the commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute. In an odd hybrid of speech forms, Tillerson wrapped harsh yet oblique criticisms of his time in public service inside what is traditionally a celebratory and inspiring charge to future servicemen and women.

Tillerson could not very well speak ill of his and their commander-in-chief directly. Since he did not resign in protest, a tell-all account would have come across like a sore loser’s complaint. But Tillerson had an alarm to sound. His work values clashed with Trump’s in ways that he believes reflect a “crisis of ethics and integrity in our society.” So he could not refrain from speaking about his time in office. He had to take an indirect route and count on public commentary to connect the dots.

A Two-Organization Career

Of all the people to have left the upper reaches of the Trump Administration, Rex Tillerson was by career, position, and length of tenure the most important. State is one of the big four cabinet positions along with Defense, Treasury, and Attorney General; the other three remain occupied by the first appointees. National Security Adviser is de factoas big, but Michael Flynn was gone before you knew it and H.R. McMaster has yet to speak in a high-profile forum about his tenure. The same goes for Gary Cohn, the Chief Economic Adviser, who left over a dispute on tariffs a week before Tillerson in March 2018.

Tillerson rose to power at ExxonMobil, his sole employer before the president, partly on his commitment to evidence-based decisions. Under his regime as CEO, which began in 2006, the oil company giant shifted its rhetoric on global warming and climate change in a green direction. As Steve Coll reported in his 2012 book on the company, “The message [Tillerson] heard from environmentalists as he came to power at ExxonMobil was, he said, ‘Get in line. You’re outta line right now, get in line.’ Instinctively, he refused. Privately, he ordered a review of the issues.”

At State, serving at the pleasure of the president with the consent of the Senate, Tillerson starved out his best information sources. Instead of tapping the diplomatic expertise of the department, he sequestered himself with a few aides and began cutting positions. This exacerbated his vulnerability to the mercurial and post-fact approach of his superior in foreign policy. Tillerson disagreed with Trump on an array of issues: trade, climate change, Russian interference in the 2016 election, Iran, and ultimately North Korea. He never denied calling the president a moron. He had to go.

And when he did, on March 13, Tillerson talked to the ranks he was culling about their mission. It was widely noted that he did not thank the president for the opportunity to serve the nation.

In Search of Blessings

As might be expected at a military institute, Tillerson opened his address to the graduates and their parents by extolling the virtues of personal sacrifice to one’s country. He spoke next about technological change and globalization. Then he turned into his theme:

Your contributions to society depend on a firm foundation of personal and professional integrity.

Integrity has numerous aspects, and with Trump in mind Tillerson had a choice of emphases. He focused on truth-telling:

The pursuit of America’s future [must be] fact-based, not based on wishful thinking or shallow promises.

If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom. This is the life of non-democratic societies, comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth.

Democratic self-governance and capitalist commerce depend on wide access to agreed-upon facts. America, rooted in both, needs its leaders to immerse themselves in a steady river of facts to “preserve and protect” the freedom of its people. Failure to do so could mean that “American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”

Tillerson did not provide an example of the high costs of eschewing facts. Instead, he recited the line from John 8:32 about the power of truth to set people free. He went on:

Blessed is the man who can see you make a fool of yourself and doesn’t think you’ve done a permanent job. Blessed is the man who does not try to blame all of his failures on someone else. Blessed is the man that can say that the boy he was would be proud of the man he is.

Half-advice, half-lament.

George Marshall’s Shadow

The instant commentary was sparse and not kind. New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman reminded her Twitter readers of the non-truths Tillerson had told while at State, such as “there’s no discord between the SoS and the president” and “this NBC story is false.” A more barbed reaction came from Clio Chang at Splinter: “Tillerson, who stood by as Trump called white supremacists ‘very fine people,’ suddenly seems to have a lot of opinions about ethical leadership.” Chris Cillizza of CNN awarded Tillerson an admiring “woof” for taking it to Trump, an interpretation of the speech which Chang derided as “fantastically dense.”On May 19, John Goodman reprised his role as the Saturday Night Live-Tillerson with booming glee:

Being fired by Trump was the best thing that ever happened to me! I'm the only man ever to go into a situation scathed, and come out unscathed!

The line was ironically on point. As the non-Cillizzas and Tillerson himself saw it, unscathed isn’t how things stand now. The ex-Secretary did not speak truth to power so much as he spoke about the great importance of truth to the exercise of power. That’s a weaker stance.

The VMI campus houses the George C. Marshall Museum. In 1947 that Secretary of State, VMI class of 1901, used the occasion of a Harvard University commencement speech to unveil what would become known as the Marshall Plan. It would be unfair to expect a comparable speech from Tillerson. Yet he could have acknowledged the great man, and he could have proposed a civic initiative to meet the crisis he perceived. He could have spoken with great authority and credibility about petro-politics.

Instead, Tillerson offered this pathetically rueful piece of advice: “carefully consider the organizations in which you seek to work and look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct.”

Oh well. There’s always the prospect of a memoir.