John is TPM‘s Prime editor. His writing has also appeared at The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, UN Dispatch, Vox, Worth, and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. Before joining TPM, John was a producer for Bill Moyers and WNYC, and worked as a news writer for Grist. He grew up in New Jersey, studied history and film at Oberlin College, and got his master‘s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
The analyses started long before his tenure ended: Rex Tillerson may well go down as the worst secretary of state in recent memory.
“Tillerson was, as is now recognized even by those who put him there, a disaster,” political scientist and Bush administration adviser Eliot Cohen wrote in a December 2017 piece for the Atlantic, when President Donald Trump’s sword of Damocles was already dangling over Tillerson’s head.
Now, Tillerson is out of a job, and the final verdicts are in. “Tillerson will undoubtedly rank among the least successful secretaries of state in U.S. history,” Hannah Gurman, a clinical associate professor of history at NYU, told TPM. Other historians of foreign policy that TPM reached out to concurred: Tillerson’s tenure was a low point in the post-World War II history of the State Department.
“Rex Tillerson is the worst U.S. Secretary of State since William Jennings Bryan,” said Alfred McCoy, the Harrington Professor of History at University of Wisconsin – Madison. “While U.S. prestige collapsed worldwide and allies turned away from America, Tillerson was obsessed with a bureaucratic reorganization of the headquarters in Foggy Bottom that failed to introduce efficiency and forced a mass resignation of senior American diplomats.”
Since World War II, Tillerson was “the weakest in terms of influence on foreign policy, and certainly the worst in modern times in harming the State Department itself by not using the talents in the building and acting in a way that led lots of experienced and able people to leave, with the result that the Department is now weaker than it was when Tillerson took over,” Robert Jervis, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, told TPM. “I would say this is very ‘sad’ if Trump hadn’t ruined that word.”
Some historians, however, conceded that the former CEO of ExxonMobile faced a near-impossible task. “The fundamental problem seems to be his relationship with the President — but even there it’s not a failure to communicate but the President’s failing as a leader and manager,” emailed Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science.
“His public willingness to speak out in disagreement with the President, which is a liability for most secretaries, may be looked on more favorably with hindsight,” Elizabeth Saunders, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told TPM, but she acknowledged that “Tillerson’s lasting legacy is his shrinking and hollowing out of the State Department.”
While Tillerson’s tenure might be the pits, historians said that there are a number of runners-up for the title of worst secretary of state in recent history. “Tillerson’s tenure contains every lowlight of every recent unsuccessful term as secretary … but no highlight whatsoever,” Musgrave told TPM.
President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state served a tenure that was nearly as short as Tillerson’s. He was sworn in on January 22, 1981; by July of 1982 he had resigned. His time in the administration was marked by strained relationships with other members of Reagan’s cabinet, but his resignation, which came during the early days of the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon, took many by surprise.
Rogers was secretary of state from 1969 through 1973. Like Tillerson, Rogers was largely ignored by his president, who more often sought the advice of Henry Kissinger, who was serving at the time as national security adviser. While Rogers was still figuring out U.S. policy toward China, for example, Kissinger secretly traveled to the country. His relative unimportance worked out all right for Rogers in the end — he left office untouched by the Watergate scandal.
Tillerson’s unmatched ability to alienate his own department had a clear precedent in Henry Kissinger, Gurman told TPM. Morale at the State Department was low after years of war in southeast Asia, and Kissinger alienated career diplomats further by reducing their influence over policy.
Unlike Tillerson, however, Kissinger had President Richard Nixon’s ear. “While Kissinger traded off good relations with his subordinates for influence in the White House, Tillerson wasn’t able to exert influence on Trump — when it came to important policy disagreements — most notably the Iran nuclear deal and North Korea,” Gurman said.
A partial and continually updated glossary of terms you’ll find in our editors’ blog.
appreciate the congrats: An allusion to Trump’s memorable response to the Pulse nightclub shooting: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
the Brittle Grip: The growing insecurity of the very wealthy, even as their power has risen dramatically in recent years.
the Comey myth: The public perception of James Comey as an apolitical man of independence and integrity. The myth is based in reality, but didn’t come into being fortuitously or without careful tending over time. Comey is the main author of and is wholly bound up with the Comey Myth.
the Clinton Test: A throwback to the Bush years. When reacting to an action by a politician you oppose — in this case, Bush — consider whether you would react the same way if the action was carried out by a politician you support — in this case, Bill Clinton.
the Dead Ted Bounce: A brief period during the 2016 Republican primary during which Ted Cruz, despite his unlikeability, appeared to have more popular support than Trump because of his campaign’s superior ground game.
dignity wraiths: Men and women of once-vaunted reputations who have been reduced to mere husks of their former selves through their association with Trump.
dominance politics: A political attack meant to show an opponent’s lack of toughness or strength by showing that they are either unwilling or unable to defend themselves. A politics derived from the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others.
the Trump Dignity-Loss Event Horizon: The point of no return for a person who once enjoyed public respect, beyond which they are caught within Trump’s orbit and become a dignity wraith. (See: dignity wraiths)
Trump’s Razor: According to Trump’s Razor, “ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts” and that answer is likely correct.
the Trump Attack Haiku: Trump has developed a twitter-based, 140 character, insult haiku literary form: Single clause declarative sentence, single clause declarative sentence, primary adjective/term of derision. Not every one of his tweets follows the exact metrical progression. But most of them do, and those that don’t appear to be permutations or attempts at the model.
the weaponization of military sacrifice: The way in which Trump and his supporters frame dissent of all sorts as an attack on people who have sustained injuries or lost their lives on the country’s behalf.