More CEOs, Please - Tillerson Hugely Impressive in Confirmation Hearing
Maybe we should be turning more to the private sector than to professional politicians for our high-level government leadership. At least that was what I was thinking Wednesday as I watched Donald Trump's pick for secretary of State, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, quietly school the men and women of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson looked like the proverbial grown-up in the room -- and it wasn't just his imposing physical presence. It was the calm and ease with which he answered questions, rarely saying too much or too little. I wouldn't want to take on this man in a poker game.
But should we be surprised? Much as some might want us to think otherwise, being CEO of one of the world's biggest companies -- number eight at this moment -- with 75,000 employees in umpteen countries, including many of the planet's most dangerous despotisms, undoubtedly takes a good deal more skill, experience and, yes, diplomacy than being a U.S. senator.
We saw that dramatized in Tillerson's interaction with Marco Rubio. The Florida senator and onetime Republican presidential candidate (full disclosure: I favored him myself in the early going) kept badgering the nominee to brand Vladimir Putin a "war criminal." Tillerson demurred, though it was clear, and he even so stated, that he felt nearly the same way as Rubio about the Russian president (ditto about the misogynistic Saudis and their eighth century approach to human rights). Unconvinced, Rubio left the room still saying he was unsure if he will vote to confirm Tillerson. (Prediction: he will)
Whether technically a war criminal or not, Putin is obviously one tough dude (or should I say "bad hombre") and a worldwide problem. The question is how you deal with him. Obama pretty much rolled over for Vlad for his entire presidency, only waking up the last month or so when he made some heavily politicized theatrical gestures that, most of us know, were aimed more at wounding Trump than at Putin.
Tillerson's approach to Putin (also to the Saudis and others) seems to be one of quiet strength. Don't call names until necessary. Use diplomatic skills to get what you want. After all, once you've called a man a "war criminal," where do you go other than war? That the CEO had significant dealings with Putin in the past is likely an advantage, not the sign of cooptation the more partisan Democrats would have us believe. But whatever his relationship to Vladimir, there's something about Tillerson that projects, unlike anyone else in that hearing room Wednesday, that if he did have to go to war, he would and he'd win. Putin, no doubt, notices that too.
That's what you want in a negotiator, n'est-ce pas?
Another sign of Tillerson's quiet strength was his response to the inevitable "climate change" questions from the Democratic senators, particularly Massachusetts' Ed Markey, one of the Congresses' most devout environmentalists who has said of Republicans during a global warming hearing, "I won’t physically rise, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating about the room.” (Are we laughing?)