Lexington, Virginia, USA: In a commencement speech at Virginia Military Institute, former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson warned on Wednesday that American democracy was threatened by a “growing crisis in ethics and integrity.”
“As I reflect upon the state of American democracy,” he told the Class of 2018, “I observe a growing crisis in ethics and integrity.” Tillerson said, in a veiled rebuke of President Trump.
Tillerson’s emphasis on integrity echoed his parting words to colleagues at the State Department in March. Then he went even further:
“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.”
Tillerson’s time in Trump administration was marked by tension. He reportedly called the president a “moron” eight months before he was fired and replaced by then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
But the oil industry veteran has yet to directly criticize Trump. His speech, which began with a discussion on the globalized economy and stressed “the value of friends and allies,” is the closest he has come to attacking Trump’s rhetoric and “America First” policy.
His remarks on truth and fact appeared to be a comment on Trump’s frequent use of lies, half-truths or exaggerations.
A commitment to facts “binds us to other like-minded democratic nations,” he said, distinguishing America from “nondemocratic” countries such as Russia.
Tillerson said it’s the responsibility of all Americans to recognize “what truth is and is not,” and “what a fact is and is not.” Citizens must also demand the country’s future be “fact-based, not based on wishful thinking, not hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises, but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges,” he said.
“When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth ― even on what seem the most trivial of matters ― we go wobbly on America.”
He said that departing from the truth could mean “American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”
He said that “every nation has a right to aspire to a better quality of life, and that free trade and economic growth are the means by which opportunity is created for all people.” It was a notable defense of free trade and developing nations from a veteran of an administration that has threatened to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement and impose billions of dollars in tariffs on rivals and allies alike, and uses “America First” as its guiding principle.
Mr. Tillerson also said citizens must demand that America’s future be “fact-based, not based on wishful thinking, not hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises, but with a cleareyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.”
Mr. Tillerson told the graduating cadets that as they entered the world, they must “carefully consider the values and the culture of the organizations in which you seek to work.”
“Look for employers who set high standards for ethical conduct,” he said.
Mr. Tillerson arrived in Washington after running Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s largest corporations, backed by business leaders and some foreign policy experts as a man who could bring experience and ballast to an untested administration.
But as the nation’s top diplomat, he soon found himself at odds with the president over a variety of issues, including negotiating with North Korea and extending the Iran nuclear deal, and privately humiliated until he was fired by a tweet.
Since then, he has largely been in seclusion at his Texas ranch. He had agreed to deliver the V.M.I. commencement address before he was fired.