Rex Tillerson, Cowpoke Diplomat

In an interview with 60 Minutes, aired on February 18, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Margaret Brennan that he is guided by “The Code of the West,” the rules and sensibility that he was raised on in North Texas. Tillerson explained the code by saying that “as the West was unfolding there wasn’t a lot of law enforcement. And people basically relied upon each other’s word. And ‘My word is my bond.’ And I’ve used that throughout my life as well…And then a lotta the Code of the West was people were very loyal to their organizations. And the phrase, ‘Riding for the brand’ is a phrase that’s always stuck with me…[and that meant] when a cowboy signed on to a ranch or– or to that organization, he was committed to that organization.”

Now there’s a lot to admire in this code. Who faults straightforwardness, clarity, and honesty? Who derides those who keep their word? And besides, Tillerson delivers his earthy sermonette with a gentle drawl and thoughtful mien that only deepens our sense that he’s a regular Atticus Finch, committed to his ethics and devoted to his commitments.

Brennan, perhaps struck by the soft-spoken dignity of the Secretary of State (and perhaps not), was moved to know what brand Tillerson was “riding for.” He replied, “The State Department of the United States government. The American people are my brand.”

I am in part willing to believe this. Tillerson does saddle up for the State Department when he pursues some diplomatic inroads with North Korea, albeit somewhat haltingly, despite the President’s tweet insisting that such efforts with Little Rocket Man are a waste of Tillerson’s time. And he does carry himself like one of the adults in the Oval Nursery, which does some service to “his brand,” the American people.

But other parts of me ain’t buying it at all.

There is plentiful reason to think that the U.S. Department of State is not his brand. A great deal of media attention (including this from The Guardian) makes it clear that, just as Scott Pruitt has signed on to head the EPA in order to neuter it, Rex Tillerson is overseeing a diminishment of State. Acknowledging a slashing of the department’s budget, he insists that addressing and reducing conflicts around the world will lead to great financial savings for the U.S., but there is no evidence that Trump is reducing our international commitment, nor that he is not increasing the potential for new and fearsome conflicts, especially with North Korea and Iran but conceivably with Turkey and in the Arabian Peninsula.

While Brennan did not raise these issues, she did get to another heart of the miserable matter: There are still 41 U.S. embassies without ambassadors. How are we pursuing diplomacy in the hottest spots in the world when we do not have an ambassador in South Korea or Saudi Arabia? Tillerson admitted this was an issue but also insisted that “it’s just the nature of the process itself” that makes appointments so difficult. He did not explain why it has been so much less difficult with past administrations nor why Trump has not even made appointments to so many of those empty posts. But Tillerson keeps riding for the Trump brand because the President, he says, is “the decider.”

In concluding the interview, Tillerson finished as a whimsically grinning Sam Eliot might wrap up any well-narrated western, saying, “I’m here to serve my country. I committed to this president. My word is my bond. I ride for this brand. That’s why I’m here. And nothin’ anybody else says is gonna change that.” And so he asserts his nobility while failing even to acknowledge an essential understanding of adult life: there are times when you can’t be simultaneously loyal to your boss and to the good of the company. Trump always looks for men (and an occasional woman) to be loyal to him—not to the country, the Constitution, or the laws, but to him. Which means Tillerson may be just another perfect Trump man.

Possibly the most striking example, at least in this interview, of this misplaced loyalty—and of Tillerson’s failure to behave like the bullshit-free cowpoke he claims to be—arose when Brennan asked him why he continues neither to confirm nor deny that he did, in front of several other White House officials, call the President a moron. With the hint of a sneer, Tillerson called the question “very old” before going on to insist that he isn’t interested in the kind of “silly” talk that is so sadly all the rage in Washington. When Brennan repeated the question, Tillerson said, “I have answered the question.” Asked again, he said, “I won’t dignify the question…[pause]…I have answered the question.”

No he hasn’t. Nor has he really explained why he won’t. Hell, he could at least say, “I have to stick with ‘no comment’ on this one. I’m going to keep my private conversations private.” That would have some dignity. There is much less dignity in insisting that only “silly” gossips care whether so powerful a cabinet member considers his President an idiot. Also, there are other and much more dignified responses to Brennan’s perfectly appropriate question. He could have said, “It was a heated moment. I don’t recall exactly how I expressed my regrettable flash of frustration, but I know it did not represent my real judgment of the President.” That, of course, might be a lie. It’s possible he never did call Trump a moron. But why would he, while “riding for his brand,” not be comfortable explaining that? Or maybe he did spurt out the insult, and maybe it did reflect his real judgment. And if that’s the case, then we have to ask why he would sign on to such an outfit in the first place, or stick with one that proved to be so moronic.

Nothing in the code says a cowboy can’t quit.


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