Opinion writer

Rex Tillerson didn’t have much use for the media when he was secretary of state. The Post reported in March 2017:

On his just-completed trip to Asia, Tillerson allowed only one journalist, Erin McPike of the Independent Journal Review, to travel with him. And when McPike asked in a weekend interview whether Tillerson would permit a fuller press corps to accompany him in the future, the former ExxonMobil chief executive said decisions will depend on “my needs.” …

“I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. … I don’t have this appetite or hunger to be that, have a lot of things, have a lot of quotes in the paper or be more visible with the media.”

His aversion to the media never seemed to be rooted in contempt for the First Amendment, however. Rather, he was by experience and temperament a CEO of a public company who could tightly regulate media access. He did not lie. When confronted with the leak that he had called the president a “moron,” he tried to sidestep questions rather than falsely deny that he had uttered such an entirely sound conclusion. So if he was not transparent, he was generally honest, something you cannot say of most of the colleagues he left behind in the Cabinet.

On Wednesday, Tillerson was more candid in a commencement address at Virginia Military Institute. He told the audience:

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. … A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness and demand our pursuit of America’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. …

When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may see the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America.

It’s hard to imagine he didn’t have his former boss in mind when deciding to impart that message to the graduates and their friends and family, although the former Eagle Scout and president of the Boy Scouts of America has long extolled “values-based servant leadership.”

Tillerson’s speech, as is any address by a public figure on truth and character, certainly welcomed. (Indeed, as a lover of graduation speeches, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a good number of graduation speeches this year on decency, kindness, public service, courage and truth.) Tillerson’s remarks do raise two questions, however.

How could Tillerson, if he believes what he says, have served in a position he plainly was not qualified for and for a boss who is not only “wobbly” but antagonistic toward facts? Tillerson didn’t resign on principle when the president lied or made racist comments; he had to be fired. It’s worth contemplating when public service becomes a dangerous exercise in enabling a president intent on tearing down democratic norms and the notion of objective truth. It is one thing if you’re Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, eminently qualified, internationally respected and essential to preventing true international catastrophe; it’s another if you’re not making a difference anyway. It’s helpful when lawmakers who are retiring finally speak out, but it is disappointing they didn’t do so until they had their escape from Congress planned. Defending the truth is important, but doing so in real time, at personal cost, is very important.

We are confronted with a second question hovering over the heads of graduation speakers, parents and leaders of all types: What happens to a country in which its leader, the most powerful person on the planet, exhibits contempt for the truth, democracy and simple decency? Well, for starters, we cannot, as CNN’s Jake Tapper said in his graduation remarks at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, “look to Washington to exemplify the standards of behavior we want to teach our children.” Spineless politicians are not going to rescue us from their mendacious leader.

No, if we want to ride out the Trump years without stooping to Trump’s level or normalizing entirely unacceptable behavior, we’ll have to look closer to home. We must start voting our values, judging politicians on their character and not on their fidelity to a rubric of ideological talking points. We need to celebrate public servants in the bureaucracy and on the courts who are defending objective reality and the rule of law. We have to stick up for real journalists, fallible like all human beings, honestly seeking to expose wrongdoing — even when they uncover nettlesome facts about “our side.” We are obligated as well to condemn a phony news network that spreads xenophobia and false conspiracy theories, advocacy groups that contribute to polarization and nasty political discourse, and politicians too cowardly to speak out against a president they know is malicious, dishonest and corrupt.