|Rex Tillerson, DoS image|
In a clever rhetorical move, Tillerson cited a letter that George Washington sent to the Newport, Rhode Island synagogue, in which Washington advocated "a government which to bigotry gives no sanction; to persecution, no assistance." Why was this clever? Right-wing speakers routinely cite the Founding Fathers and say that they want to return to the Founders' values. My experience is that, most of the time, extreme right wingers have no idea what the Founders actually believed, and Tillerson's move - to cite our first president - struck directly at white supremacists' major talking point. What made Tillerson's point even more powerful is that the Charlottesville demonstrators were shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Tillerson contradicted the demonstrators without mentioning them, but everyone knew what he was talking about. He turned the tables on racists with great gentleness.
Tillerson also said that "hate speech" should not be tolerated and that "those who embrace it poison our public discourse and they damage the very country that they claim to love." With a nice flourish - for rhetoric students, he used a tricolon - he said that "Racism is evil; it is antithetical to America's values. It's antithetical to the American idea."
Continuing, Tillerson discussed steps the State Department was taking to create a more diverse Foreign Service. He insisted that whenever an ambassadorship was open, one of the candidates must be from a minority. He also wanted to recruit from beyond the Ivy League campuses. He reviewed in detail the statistics on the low representation of ethnic minorities and women in the Foreign Service.
Tillerson further emphasized that the future leaders whom he was addressing needed to place personal integrity first. He praised the students and fellows for their accomplishments. He promised that they would be outstanding leaders.
Reactions were mixed. Roger Clegg's column in the conservative National Review called Tillerson's speech "appalling," Clegg opposed "race-based hiring" as "unfair" and "identity politics." CNN's Nicole Gaouette and Elise Labott called the speech "a powerful condemnation Friday of both hate and those who 'protect or accept hate speech.'"
Tillerson's speech was admirable, but should not have been controversial. He addressed values; he tied his values to the United States' founding values. Given Tillerson's reputation as a conservative, this was no surprise. However, for him to cite George Washington against bigotry was brilliant. He used tradition to advocate change. Also, Tillerson proved that conservatism does not require racism; indeed, he contended the opposite: that conservative values prohibit bigotry.
P.S.: I have read hundreds and hundreds of pages of the Founding Fathers' writings. I enjoy reading what they wrote. They had many good ideas. I recommend their works to all Americans. It is important to know their real ideas, not the invented interpretations that we hear on talk radio and cable news.