March 31, 2017

“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground,” said Teddy Roosevelt.

If the Washington Post is to be believed, Rex Tillerson believes you should keep your eyes on the stars. Or the nearest water fountain. Or a family photo on your desk. Maybe just on your iPhone, a passing squad car, anything but him.

In a less than solicitous profile, The Washington Post portrayed the new Secretary of State as distant, insular, set apart from the rank-and-file and loathe to engage in any managerial bonhomie.

“On many days, he blocks out several hours on his schedule as ‘reading time,’ when he is cloistered in his office poring over the memos he prefers ahead of in-person meetings,” write national political reporter Anne Gearan and diplomatic correspondent Carol Morello.

They noted how “On his first three foreign trips, Tillerson skipped visits with State Department employees and their families, embassy stops that were standard morale-boosters under other secretaries of state.”

But the nut graph — or a nutty graph to some — is this one:

“Most of his interactions are with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact.”

No eye contact?

“This is not true and people repeating it are making it more difficult to address very real issues,” tweeted Matt Lee, the Associated Press diplomatic reporter, on Friday.

“Not disputing the entire story. There are issues. But ‘no eye contact’ is not one of them…” he added.

Tillerson is a clearly press-averse former CEO of ExxonMobil who has exhibited the condescension toward the media exhibited by his boss, President Trump. But, unlike Trump, who manifests his ambiguous views toward the media in regular and very public fashion, Tillerson opts for the low profile of a corporate chieftain.

So there are few press briefings. Only one ideologically friendly reporter was allowed on his plane for one overseas trip. Only two were allowed on another.

Whether intentional or not, he is crashing right into some old Washington traditions, especially at the State Department, where reporters are accustomed to regular dealings with the boss and aides-de-camp. And it’s been a generally mutually advantageous relationship, with the Secretary of State and those aides regularly able to give their spin on U.S. relations and events around the world.

But employees instructed not to make eye contact? That would seem a bit of stretch. And is he as odd as portrayed, cloistered in his office for hours by himself? It’s hard to imagine that somebody got to the top of rough and tumble ExxonMobil with such an idiosyncratic personal manner.

So is he a little off-kilter, admirably independent when it comes to the ego-driven ways of an in itself insulated press corps, a bit of a jerk, or perhaps a combo?

Whatever, the press-Tillerson relationship is one to keep your eyes on.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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