Washington (CNN) - In a rare public address following his removal from office in March, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told graduating cadets at the Virginia Military Institute on Wednesday that respect for truth is paramount to American democracy.
"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," Tillerson said in the commencement address, which was scheduled before he was fired by President Donald Trump in March.
Tillerson has shied from the limelight since his dramatic ouster earlier this year, and has stopped short of any direct criticism of Trump or his administration. His comments on Wednesday are especially notable because Tillerson was recently fired by Trump, whose presidency has been marked by frequent falsehoods and embellishments. He did not mention the President or any other member of the administration by name in his Wednesday speech.
"A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not," he went on to say, "and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness and demand our pursuit of America's future be fact-based -- not based on wishful thinking, not hoped-for 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 to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges."
"When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may see the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America."
Tillerson's tenure as the nation's top diplomat was marked by tension with Trump and members of his inner circle, which reached an apex last year after reports emerged that Tillerson called the President a "moron."
The beginning of Tillerson's commencement speech had the feel of a foreign policy address, with Tillerson philosophizing about the importance of the US maintaining its historic alliances and keeping its adversaries in check.
He then went on to speak about the importance of personal integrity -- a favorite topic for him when he addressed State Department staff during his tenure.
In his farewell remarks to agency staff in March, Tillerson cautioned staff not to lose sight of their integrity, "the most valuable asset you possess."