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Tillerson Takes The Helm At The State Department, Promising Respect And Honesty

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits memorial wall plaques in the lobby of the State Department on Thursday. The plaques honor employees who died in the line of duty.
Andrew Harnik
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits memorial wall plaques in the lobby of the State Department on Thursday. The plaques honor employees who died in the line of duty.

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived at the State Department for his first day on the job, he made a point of visiting two walls in the entryway that pay tribute to fallen foreign service personnel.

"They died in service of causes far greater than themselves," Tillerson told the hundreds of employees who packed the C Street lobby at Foggy Bottom. "As we move forward in a new era, it is important to honor the sacrifices of those who have come before us, and reflect on the legacy that we inherit."

It was a message many diplomats needed to hear, after the White House called on "career bureaucrats" to "get with the program" or leave, remarks that were meant to target those who have expressed dissent over recent Trump administration moves.

Tillerson's visit was also in stark contrast to President Trump's speech in front of a memorial at the CIA, where the president spent more time trashing media coverage of his inauguration than remembering career professionals who died on the job.

At the State Department, there are 248 names on the memorial plaques, the first of which was unveiled in 1933 by Secretary of State Henry Stimson. According to the American Foreign Service Association, which maintains the plaque walls, these Americans died in 64 countries. Recent additions include Anne Smedingoff, a foreign service officer killed in Afghanistan in 2013, and the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. Tillerson spent a few extra moments reading the names of Benghazi victims.

"The safety of every single member of our State Department family, regardless of where he or she is posted, is not just a priority for me. It's a core value, and it will become a core value of this department," Tillerson told his staff.

He also alluded to the dissenting views about the Trump administration's suspension of the refugee program and the temporary ban on visitors from seven mainly Muslim countries. "Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team," he said, assuring them that he would tap into their expertise.

The plain-talking Texan and former CEO of Exxon Mobil promised to run the State Department efficiently. He also showed his humorous side, when he explained that he was late because of the morning's National Prayer Breakfast. "People felt the need to pray a little longer," he said to laughter.

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Corrected: February 1, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misspelled a reference to Rex Tillerson's last name as Tilleron.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.