Democracy depends on the truth

On May 16, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave the commencement speech at Virginia Military Institute. The speech, a warning about eroding values in our country, did not get nearly the attention I believe it deserves.

Mr. Tillerson’s comments focused on the importance of truth, ethics, and integrity, all qualities that are in short supply in America these days. He opened his speech by describing what he called “a growing crisis of ethics and integrity,” adding the biblical quote, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Later in his remarks, Mr. Tillerson said that, “It is only by fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts that we create the conditions for a democratic, free society, comprised of richly diverse peoples.

“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. This is the life of nondemocratic societies, comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth.”

Tillerson asked all Americans to pledge their commitment to truth as a patriotic obligation, saying, “A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what the truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness”.

He reminded the listeners that, “It is truth that says to our adversaries, we say what we mean, and we mean what we say,” and said that, “Without personal honor, there is no leadership.”

Tillerson concluded his speech by saying, “If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society, and among our leaders in both the public and private sector, and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector, then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”

Before his cabinet appointment, I knew Mr. Tillerson only as the CEO of Exxon Mobil, and during his brief time as secretary of State I was not particularly impressed by his diplomatic skills. But his impassioned speech earned my respect, because he verbalized so succinctly my greatest fear about our current political climate — that America’s ethical values are so rapidly eroding that our unique democracy is forever changed for the worse.

That fear was heightened recently when veteran journalist Lesley Stahl reported that Donald Trump told her and her boss at CBS that he regularly attacks the press “to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” Unfortunately for ethics and honesty, Trump’s strategy is working with about 45 percent of Americans recently polled.

Rex Tillerson has a plan to rescue our country from ethical decline. He advises that we all “demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking; not hopeful outcomes made in shallow promises; but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free.”

Over the past few days I have witnessed our current president publicly praised as a “good liar,” favorably compared to biblical King David, complimented for “making money for his business from the Oval Office,” envied for his multiple illicit relationships, and defended for calling people various insulting names.

All of which makes me wonder how many Americans are willing to stand up for the honest and ethical leadership it will take to return our country to what President Ronald Reagan once described as “a shining city on a hill for all the world to admire.”

I fear that not enough of us will make the stand required to return America to that shining example of ethical integrity. And there is nothing great about that to me.

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Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.

Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.