Donald Trump’s ex-secretary of state and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson raised more than a few eyebrows earlier this month in a commencement address to an American military college, when he suddenly declared himself a proponent of the truth.
“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,” he told the crowd at Virginia Military Institute. “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”
The moment wasn’t lost on Grist correspondent Kate Yoder, who noted that “it’s hard to think of a more ironic messenger. As the CEO of the oil company ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2017, Tillerson was involved in some pretty shady truth-concealing around the science of climate change.”
For anyone who saw any possibility that there was truth behind Tillerson’s sudden espousal of the truth, the language in the actual commencement address was…more complicated. But the Grist story focuses on the reasons to be skeptical about the pronouncements of a one-time master of skepticism.
“Between 2008 and 2015, Exxon handed $6.5 million to climate-denying groups and $2.3 million to climate-denying politicians,” Yoder writes. “That all happened under Tillerson’s watch—and after the company had pledged to stop funding climate denial in 2007.”
And then there was InsideClimate News’ blockbuster, Pulitzer Prize-nominated revelation that #Exxonknew about the dangers of climate change as early as the 1970s, but chose to invest its millions in climate denial—and in an extreme oil development strategy that continues to this day.
But it was a different and apparently chastened Rex Tillerson who took the stage at the Virginia Military Institute.
“Without personal honour, there is no leadership,” he told cadets. Not once but three times, he defined integrity as “the state of being complete and whole,” adding that when integrity “is sacrificed to immediate gain, such damage strikes to the heart of society.” He opined that solving the “world’s most complex problems” will require people to “innovate, collaborate, and share over the long term,” and urged his audience to “see our actions as part of a broader social fabric of cooperation and mutual advancement.”
On a personal note, Tillerson indicated that he’d been happiest in his Exxon career when he was a district manager in 1992. “It’s been all downhill since,” he said, adding that a lack of humble insight leads to “poor results, even ruin.” And he cited a quote that had been meaningful to his dad, who recently died: “Blessed is the man who can say that the boy he once was would be proud of the man he is.”
Look no farther than Exxon’s own relentless campaign of climate denial for evidence that words matter, and actions speak louder still. But taken at face value, Tillerson’s comments do raise a question: What would leadership and integrity look like for a fossil CEO in an economy that accepted a managed decline of fossil fuel production as a central and essential goal?