The worst Secretary of State in living memory

The graceless defenestration is one of Washington’s crueler art forms. In the case of Rex Tillerson, who has long stoutly maintained that he has no intention of resigning, it has been done with White House leaks about a reshuffle apparently masterminded by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. In the Marine Corps, these things are done more forthrightly, one suspects; but Kelly is a Trumpian civilian now, so he called Tillerson’s office to deny a story leaked by the White House to major news outlets. Meanwhile, a respected senior colleague gets a prolonged and humiliating shove out the window. Like so much in the capital these days, it’s low-end Shakespeare, farcical court politics albeit without the elevated language.

Tillerson was, as is now recognized even by those who put him there, a disaster. As with most spectacular Washington flame-outs, his failures stem not from stupidity or general incompetence, but from a specific set of disabilities: an introverted and cocooned style of management that gave power to a few hated but overwhelmed and incompetent gatekeepers; insufficient skill at buttering up his volatile boss who, in an unguarded moment, the secretary seems to have characterized as a “moron”; morbid suspicion and sequestration of the State Department press, alienating a collection of hopeless foreign-policy wonks who normally fall in love with the secretary and sing his or her praises accordingly; management-jargon-laden reforms heavy on business-speak and low on familiarity with the work of diplomacy that demoralized the foreign service; and incapacity at finding and pushing through appointees who might do the work of diplomacy. He was a debacle, pure and simple, the worst secretary of state in living memory (and there has been serious competition) not because of ineptitude, but because of the semi-intentional demolition job he was doing on his own department even as he fell out of presidential favor.