O Captain, My Captain
As President Trump roils international waters with a wave of controversial decisions in his first days in office, the Senate yesterday moved to calm them. In a bipartisan vote, the chamber confirmed a captain of industry to steer our nation’s ship of state, a leader whose very name suggests a steady hand on the tiller—Rex Tillerson, former Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil.
The decision was a wise one. The new Secretary of State is an extraordinary addition to the president’s cabinet. I say this not for political reasons—I am a life-long Democrat who actively opposed Trump’s candidacy. Nor do I say this because of Rex Tillerson’s views on foreign policy, of which we gained only glimpses during his confirmation hearings.
My support for Rex is, instead, personal. During his ten years serving as ExxonMobil’s chief, I served him, first as his speechwriter and later as communications manager. Rex was my captain. And during this time, I came to deeply respect and admire his leadership. Integrity was the watchword of his tenure as our company’s top executive, and integrity, I trust, will also characterize his time as our nation’s top diplomat.
To those who prosecuted Rex during his confirmation hearings for lacking “moral clarity,” consider me a character witness for his defense. I cannot vouch for his politics or policies, but I can for the principles and values he upheld and in many ways embodies. Rex’s sense of right and wrong, true and false, virtue and vice, is clear. Crystal.
His values spring from several sources, I believe. Our company’s culture, in which Rex was immersed for more than four decades, was certainly one important influence. It is captured, in part, in our Standards of Business Conduct, a code of ethics that is not mere corporate pabulum, but an omnipresent guide every employee is mindful of and reminded of, as I can personally attest.
Embedded within the Standards is an uncompromising commitment to truth-telling: “Local customs, traditions, and mores differ from place to place, and this must be recognized. But honesty is not subject to criticism in any culture. Shades of dishonesty simply invite demoralizing and reprehensible judgments.” Here is not simply a prohibition on lying; it is penetrating insight into the ways deceit can corrupt the human heart. Rex applied this extraordinary standard, as well as an engineer’s exacting mind, to every public statement I helped craft for him. Intellectual dishonesty, no less than technical inaccuracy, he would not tolerate.
In his introduction to the Standards, Rex wrote: “Regardless of how much difficulty we encounter or pressure we face, no situation can justify [their] willful violation.” He himself faced such a pressure-filled situation early in his career, as he retold in a speech years later. During a trip overseas to negotiate a new partnership, Rex was invited to the home of a senior foreign government official, who solicited from him a bribe. “I paused a minute,” Rex explained, “looked at him, and said, ‘Your Excellency, I can’t do that. If that’s the basis on which you want to do business, than we can’t do any business. I appreciate you receiving me at your home.” He left, and in so doing, feared he may have left his career behind as well. His manager fully supported his decision, however, and eventually the same foreign official invited him back, no questions asked.
Rex’s character invites comparisons to one of his predecessors who also had served as a captain, not of industry, but of the military—George C. Marshall. As Mark Tooley recently retold in a tribute to him in this space, Marshall graduated from Virginia Military Institute as first captain, and over a forty-year career rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. Army. Credited by Churchill as being the “organizer of victory” in the Second World War, he retired from the service, only to be recalled as Secretary of State and later Secretary of Defense. In the former role, he spearheaded Europe’s economic recovery through the plan that bears his name, an achievement that earned the lifelong warfighter the Nobel Prize for peace. He “brightened many corners in war and peace,” Mark writes, drawing upon the hymn of that name sung by soldiers in a painting hanging at Marshall’s museum.
Marshall’s lofty feats can be traced to his simple honesty and genuine humility. As David Brooks retells in his book The Road to Character, Marshall was universally respected as man of the highest integrity, governed by a “chivalric devotion to service, a stoic commitment to self-control, and a classical devotion to honor.” He “sublimated his ego” to apply his “ordered mind” to the institution he served and to the “business of victory.” The two world wars featured many cinematic generals; Marshall was not one of them. As a leading war correspondent of the time extolled, he was a “homely man of towering intellect, the memory of an unnatural genius, and the integrity of a Christian saint.” The same will be said of Rex, I predict. Echoes of Marshall could be heard in his Senate testimony, in fact. Asked why he chose to forgo a comfortable retirement to answer the call of duty, Rex answered matter-of-factly: “all the reasons I had to say no…were selfish reasons, so I had no reason to say no.”
One can speculate about how these values might translate into his conduct of foreign policy. Honest broker? Teller of truth to power? A realist grounded in hard truths and ever-mindful of human failings? An idealist who champions human dignity, protects innocents, and promotes American values as well as interests? Time will tell. Or not. The imprint of Rex’s character upon U.S. foreign policy could be trumped by the Commander-in-Chief’s.
Regardless, I have no doubt that Secretary Tillerson will make our nation proud. In his poem O Captain, My Captain, Walt Whitman metaphorically eulogizes President Lincoln at the tragic end of his heroic voyage to reunite the country: “The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, / From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won.” Rex is starting a voyage, not ending one, with a ship of state listing to starboard and no safe haven in sight. However, with one hand steadied on the tiller and the other palming a tried and true moral compass, I am confident that my captain, our captain, will do his best to right the ship and steer us to anchorage, safe and sound.
Matt Gobush served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He also served as chairman of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. He currently works in the private sector and lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and three internationally adopted children.
Photo Credit: Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing on January 11, 2017. By Office of the President-Elect, via GreatAgain.gov and Wikimedia Commons.