With a long life of service to his credit—in education, government and public affairs—George Shultz is still on active duty.
Photo: David Hume Kennerly
By Robert L. Strauss
As the private jet slows to a stop at Teterboro Airport—12 miles west of Manhattan—the limo is already waiting, doors open. Half an hour later, the Mercedes S-600 glides onto the George Washington Bridge. “I walked across this bridge on the day it opened,” a voice says almost inaudibly from the backseat. “My friend and I bicycled here from Englewood.” That was in 1931.
In the 85 years since, George Shultz—the former secretary of labor, secretary of the treasury, secretary of state, first director of the Cabinet-level Office of Management and Budget, former president of the engineering colossus Bechtel, and member of the Stanford faculty since 1974—has crossed innumerable bridges, many of them figurative but of such enduring significance that they may as well have been made from steel, rock and concrete. At times, his part in arguing for U.S. involvement in Lebanon and reengaging with the Soviet Union put him at formidable odds with the very establishment he represented.
Shultz is the human incarnation of Newton’s first law of physics: A body in motion tends to stay in motion. His schedule would daunt many half his age. Tonight, he is on his way to the Waldorf-Astoria, where the World Jewish Congress will present him with the Theodor Herzl award for his long-standing support of Israel. Earlier in the day in Washington, he and Stanford professor emeritus Sidney Drell received the American Nuclear Society’s first-ever Dwight D. Eisenhower medal for their relentless work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. About the only significant prize Shultz hasn’t received is the Nobel. But once upon a time, he came very, very close.
Given his unassuming personality, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever write Shultz, an Obie-winning rap musical about America’s 62nd secretary of the treasury, as has been done with Hamilton about America’s first. It’s equally unlikely that Shultz—challenged to a duel—would resort to pistols as Hamilton and Vice-President Aaron Burr did in 1804. More likely he would sit for hours or days if necessary, listening carefully, interrupting only for clarification, until an acceptable compromise could be reached.
So rare is a sighting of Shultz visibly angry that people talk about the red-faced variant as though they had just seen a passenger pigeon, extinct since 1914, on the wing. Arnold Weber, a student of Shultz’s in the 1950s, says he made a second career of watching Shultz’s neck muscles as he followed him from MIT to the University of Chicago, the Department of Labor and the nascent OMB. A softly uttered “Oh, that bastard” was as stiff as Shultz’s language got. It was an incident in the early 1960s that showed Weber—who later became president of the University of Colorado and then Northwestern—the stuff that Shultz is made of.
While dean of the University of Chicago Business School, Shultz co-chaired the Armour Automation Fund with another highly regarded labor economist, Clark Kerr, then president of the University of California. The fund had been established to mitigate the impact of the closures of big-city meatpacking plants on workers, many of whom were minorities. One plant was in Fort Worth, Texas, where Shultz and Weber traveled with a team member from the United Packinghouse Workers of America. At the hotel, Shultz and Weber checked in with no problem. Their colleague, having presented his reservation confirmation, was told the hotel was full. Their colleague was black.
Shultz had never observed racism so intimately before. When he told the clerk that he and Weber would share one room and the union rep could have the other, the clerk backpedaled, saying that they were already booked in one room. “Shultz didn’t appear to explode or get angry,” Weber says, “but just looked [the clerk] straight in the eye and said, ‘If that’s the case, put a third bed in the room and we’ll all be in there.’” Says Weber, “You could see [the clerk] cringe a little [thinking] what was worse, having a black person in the hotel or having three people in one room” on a mixed-race basis. An empty room was found.
Half a century later, Weber says, “It was classic George Shultz.” He “identified the issue”—discrimination—and worked to resolve it. He didn’t “threaten to sue or to kick the clerk’s ankles,” he just “pushed on in a simple but direct way.” In Cabinet meetings Weber witnessed, “George was the guy in the room who stripped down the superfluous elements, the strong feelings, and tried to get to what the issue was in operational terms.” He was “a simplifier, not a complexifier.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ’55, says that Shultz, a lifelong Republican, possesses the most impressive C.V. she’s ever seen and would have been a very good president. “He’s open to ideas. He is not rigidly bound by ideology.” That is what makes Shultz “an endangered species” in today’s political environment, says Philip Taubman, Shultz’s biographer and a consulting professor at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Shultz was always looking for pragmatic solutions that “advanced the interests of the nation,” says Taubman, ’70, a former editor-in-chief of the Stanford Daily who went on to a nearly 30-year career at the New York Times.
“Today our political leaders seem to find it difficult to rely on reason rather than on rhetoric and flames . . . to the loss of the Republic,” says two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post. “As a result we don’t get the George Shultzes that we should.”
In “A Reagan Approach to Climate Change”—a March 2015 op-ed in the Washington Post—Shultz proposed that the United States take out an “insurance policy” against global warming by increasing government R&D and enacting a carbon tax, lest we get “mugged by reality” later on.
When this idea came up at the Republican debate in September, Scientific American reported that “Shultz’s standing as an iconic figure in the Republican establishment earned him little leeway.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie commented, “Everyone makes a mistake once in a while, even George Shultz.”
Shultz co-authored The State Clean Energy Cookbook, sponsored by Stanford’s left-leaning Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, and right-leaning Hoover Institution’s Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy. The collaboration aimed to address the red state/blue state divide and the partisan gridlock that has made passing federal environmental legislation nearly impossible.
Shultz’s thinking is sufficiently catholic that while he strongly advocates increasing America’s military might, he doesn’t believe that the United States should try to turn every nation into Denmark by exporting democracy. “We need to be working for open systems of government,” he says, “but we don’t need to go around the world on a campaign.”
The emeritus GSB professor of economics and Hoover distinguished fellow, whom his friend and former protégée Condoleezza Rice calls an “avowed capitalist,” shares concerns about the banking system not so different from those voiced by avowed socialist Bernie Sanders. In a December New York Times op-ed, Sanders wrote, “we need to fundamentally restructure the Fed’s governance system to eliminate conflicts of interest.”
Shultz says of the financial crisis, “the regulatory process didn’t work at all . . . because the New York Fed is the regulator and is picked by the financial community . . . and that’s not the way to go about it.”
Former Stanford president Gerhard Casper says that because Shultz is open to new ideas, he is “the only person I know who is getting younger all the time.”
Shultz championed one contentious idea early in his tenure as secretary of state: He encouraged President Ronald Reagan to reopen communication with the Soviets. Despite severe resistance from hardened cold warriors, by 1985 relations had warmed sufficiently that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan were able to meet in Geneva.
In 1986 in Iceland, Shultz, Reagan, Gorbachev and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze came within one word of agreeing to eliminate all Soviet and American nuclear weapons, which surely would have won them the Nobel Prize. The word was laboratory.
The negotiations in Reykjavik were intimate. Late on the second day came the bombshell proposal that the two countries eliminate all nuclear weapons. Reagan—who by all accounts dreaded the idea of a nuclear war—was ready to agree, except that he was unwilling to accept Gorbachev’s one condition: that the United States confine testing of its nascent antimissile Strategic Defense Initiative technology to the laboratory. Although SDI, or “Star Wars,” was an unproven concept, Reagan was unwilling to pledge that the United States wouldn’t test it in space.
In a March 1983 address to the nation, Reagan explained Star Wars. “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack; that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?”
It was a speech that Charles Hill, Shultz’s executive aide at the State Department, says caused people to run down the halls screaming, because it “completely undermined the primary intellectual policy of the whole Cold War”—that of mutually assured destruction. If the Soviets believed that the United States could knock their missiles out of the air, then MAD—which had deterred the use of nuclear weapons for more than 25 years—would no longer be mutual.
Shultz, an SDI skeptic, went along once Reagan had announced his intentions, while working with the president to moderate the language he planned to use in his speech. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—a strong proponent of conventional deterrence—was appalled. “How could you?” she demanded of Shultz. “Because, Margaret, I agree with him,” he told her, becoming one of the first cold warriors to advocate for the complete elimination of nuclear arms.
Hill now calls Star Wars a “huge deception,” one that took in Reagan as well as the Soviets. Subsequently, the Reykjavik deal collapsed over something that didn’t exist. To this day, no system approaching Reagan’s vision for SDI has ever been made operational.
“Reykjavik was his greatest success and his greatest failure,” says Phyl Whiting, Shultz’s executive assistant at Hoover from 1988 until 2000. Failure, because they came so close. Success, because that very closeness made it possible for Reagan and Gorbachev—with Shultz and Shevardnadze at their sides—to agree to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe just 18 months later.
Conservative columnist George Will declared December 8, 1987, the day Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF treaty, as the day the United States lost the Cold War. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Within two years, the Iron Curtain had fallen, the Soviet Union was collapsing, and the Cold War was over.
Shultz now thinks the world simply wasn’t ready for the elimination of nuclear weapons when Gorbachev and Reagan nearly agreed to it. “The big thing was bringing the Cold War to an end.” As for the elusive Nobel Peace Prize, Shultz says he gave it “zero thought.”
In early November 2015, two weeks after a quick trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a day after a videoconference with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Shultz sits down with seven eighth-graders at the St. Elizabeth Seton School in Palo Alto. Two of them have just received the annual Shultz Award for scholarship, leadership and citizenship, which comes with a plaque and $1,500 toward their tuition. It’s something he’s been doing for 20 years, ever since his first wife, O’Bie, died in 1995 after a devastating bout with pancreatic cancer. The couple had met 52 years earlier on Kauai—where Shultz, a Marine Corps officer, was on R & R between deployments, and where O’Bie, an Army nurse, was assigned.
Before falling ill, O’Bie had volunteered at St. Elizabeth’s, which had been struggling to continue its mission of educating minority and low-income children, many from East Palo Alto. After her death, the Shultz family asked that donations be sent to the school. More than $350,000 flooded in, effectively rescuing it from closure.
Shultz tells the students about the highlight of his government career: a simple telephone call in October 1987 from Ida Nudel, a Russian refusenik, who—after 17 years of struggle, harassment and internal exile—was finally let go by the Soviets, thanks in part to Shultz’s intervention. “I’m in Jerusalem,” she told him.
He tells them that as secretary of state his life was full of “little things, little problems,” the kind that can cause one to “easily lose sight of the broad strategy.” Even at their age they need to take some time to think about what it all means. It’s “sort of what you do if you go to church and pray. It’s quiet. You listen to the sermon—but you don’t even really need to. . . . You can relax and think about where you are trying to go.” When he came home from the war, his idea of a good career was to “study economics, write things, be at a good university with interesting students. If I have an opportunity for government service, I would do that,” he tells them. “That was my idea.”
Shultz admits that he’s not very introspective. At the State Department, he was so closed-lipped that he was known as The Sphinx. At St. Elizabeth’s, a momentary fissure opens in his emotional iron curtain as he tells students about his biggest regret.
During the war, Shultz wrote home maybe a dozen times, if that. Years later, he came across the letters. They had been lovingly preserved by his mother. It was then that he realized how much she treasured them and missed him. His large, unblinking blue eyes shimmer ever so slightly as he pauses for a long moment. “She appreciated them so much,” he sighs. To this day he kicks himself for not having written to his mother more often.
After he leaves, one student says it’s “amazing” that Shultz could have been talking to the president of Israel the day before and now he’s talking “to a few eighth-graders.” His quiet words have shown her “that I’m important. That everyone is important in this life, in this world, and everyone can make a difference.”
Not all the students are as articulate. Some aren’t sure what to make of him or his role in history. But they do understand that he is a statesman greatly admired by many.
That is more than many students at Stanford know, based on an informal poll taken at the GSB. Of the 47 students asked, “Who is George Shultz?” 40 have no idea. Some hedge their bets. “The name sounds familiar. . . .” Others are utterly stumped. “The Peanuts guy?”
Hearing two MBA students confess that they have never heard of George Shultz, a man eavesdropping cannot help but butt in. “He’s one of the greatest Americans ever to live.”
In James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, Shultz gets indirect credit for propelling George W. Bush toward the White House by having hosted him at Tree House, Shultz’s campus home. For some attendees, the meeting harked back to 1979, when another presidential hopeful sat down at Tree House for a similar talk. His name was Ronald Reagan. Events like these—plus Shultz’s membership in the Bohemian Club and at one time on the boards of corporations such as Chevron and GM, and his long, close association with polarizing figures such as Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—make some see Shultz as one of the master puppeteers who pull the strings that control the world. At this, Shultz chuckles quietly before saying, “What—utter—nonsense.”
“I don’t take credit for it,” he tells the St. Elizabeth students of his role in helping liberate Soviet Jewry and ending the Cold War, “but I was part of it.”
It is Friday the 13th of November. Shultz has just watched American Umpire, a Hoover-supported documentary based upon the book of the same name. Author, co-producer and professor of history at Texas A&M University Elizabeth Cobbs, PhD ’88, asks Shultz what he thinks. “Powerful film, wrong message,” he says.
The film documents America’s evolution from a young, isolated nation that rarely intervened abroad to one that since the First World War seems unable to keep from doing so. American Umpire’s undercurrents strongly suggest that it’s time for the nation to attend to its many domestic problems. It’s a suggestion that seems to push nearly all of Shultz’s buttons.
He speaks for nearly 20 minutes. Europe is in disarray; the Middle East is in flames; China, Russia and Iran are trying to establish spheres of influence that threaten the system of state sovereignty that defines modern geopolitics. ISIS and others don’t even pretend to recognize the state system. Cobbs tries to clarify what she hoped to achieve with American Umpire. Shultz, polite, calm and precise, isn’t having any of it.
According to him, the film says, “ ‘The hell with it. Let the United States stay away from other people’s problems.’ The trouble is that in an interconnected world, they aren’t only other people’s problems. They’re our problems.” Shultz says the United States has to get back to using strength and diplomacy; those who attempt to use diplomacy without strength will get “their heads handed to them.” Look at how Reagan used military force and how George W. Bush used it: “The contrast is gigantic.” By Shultz’s telling, Reagan used military force just three times—in Grenada, in Libya and in the Persian Gulf where Iran had been interfering with Kuwaiti shipping—getting in, accomplishing the goal and getting out.
At the Waldorf, Shultz had told the overwhelmingly Jewish audience, “Let’s get one thing clear: The party that puts weapons in the midst of civilians”—meaning Hamas and Hezbollah—“is the war criminal, not the party that knocks those weapons out.” Iran wants to “exterminate” Israel. “We should take them at their word.” The United States should not draw a bright red line and do nothing when it’s crossed. “If you’re not going to do anything, you don’t draw the line. Everybody knows that,” he says, referring to President Obama’s flip-flop on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “That’s not difficult to figure out.”
Even in the overwhelmingly pro-Israel audience, not all were completely comfortable with Shultz’s call to action, although he emphasized that the United States should not try to resolve every problem on Earth by sending in the military. Four days later, his remarks sound less aggressive and more prescient. Less than two hours before the American Umpire screening started, terrorists launched the attacks that killed 130 people and left 403 wounded in Paris. Suddenly many Western leaders are saying enough is enough.
“This is one side of the debate,” Shultz says of the film as he gets up to leave. “I hope somebody does a film that’s on the other side . . . that says we have a role to play in the world.” At the door, he turns around. “I enjoyed the popcorn,” he says, rounding the corner toward his office.
Shultz doesn’t name names but is clearly deeply disappointed with recent leadership in government. The government needs “A-players” and isn’t getting them because of an intrusive, arduous confirmation process that “repulses them.”
If he sees any irony in his having backed some whom history may consider less than “A-players,” he gives no indication. Donald Rumsfeld, whom Time named one of the 10 worst Cabinet members ever, was Shultz’s preferred candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Still, Shultz hesitates to criticize his old friend.
Rumsfeld was “very ingenious” heading Nixon’s wage and price controls program, where he reported to Shultz and was assisted by Dick Cheney. Shultz later supported Rumsfeld becoming the U.S. ambassador to NATO so he could get foreign policy experience, and he thought he was doing good things early on as George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. But then the mission in Afghanistan crept from the “brilliant initial success” to “creating a new democracy” that Shultz didn’t believe possible. In Iraq, “we didn’t put enough manpower in,” and Rumsfeld “made some statements that seemed to me were excusing” —he pauses for many seconds—things that “were out of control. I was always very disappointed in that.”
Reflecting on the second Iraq War, Shultz believes that initial decisions were made in good faith based on intelligence believed to be true at the time. A month or so before things “came to a head,” he went to see Secretary of State Colin Powell to ask why, if the United States had so much evidence about weapons of mass destruction, it wasn’t giving it to the U.N. inspectors to sort out. He recalls Powell saying, “George, we don’t have any such evidence.” After Powell was briefed at the CIA, Shultz says, “somehow [they] brainwashed him.” In February 2003, Powell spoke in favor of military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, using information he later acknowledged was incorrect. Says Shultz, “I’m sure as he looks back on his career, that day in the U.N. is one he will regret forever.”
Shultz’s own worst day in government was October 23, 1983. He was at Augusta with President Reagan for a relaxing weekend of golf at the home of The Masters. Around 2 a.m., that plan changed.
In Beirut, an explosives-laden truck had crashed into an ad hoc American military barracks, killing 241 service members, including 220 Marines. It was the Corps’ deadliest day since Iwo Jima in 1945. Shultz—against strenuous objection from the Pentagon—had argued for the United States to join a multinational peacekeeping force after the Palestine Liberation Organization had been forced to relocate to Tunisia. Confused communications had left the barracks virtually unprotected.
“I felt . . . we were sort of morally bound to protect the women and children in [refugee] camps,” Shultz says. “The French and the Italians were very much of the same view.”
The loss of life was crushing for Shultz. He met the bereaved families and the bodies of the dead at Andrews Air Force Base. It was “tough,” he says of that mission. “Very hard.”
Teddy Roosevelt’s iconoclastic daughter, Alice, was said to have a pillow embroidered with “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” Shultz, contrarily, seems able to find something positive to say about almost everyone.
Asked what it was like to be in the White House and Cabinet with people who were later indicted, in some cases convicted, and in some cases pardoned, Shultz says many were White House staff accountable only to the president. Still, Nixon’s Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, who spent 18 months in prison, “ran a good White House.” Top aide John Ehrlichman, who also spent 18 months in prison, was a “good guy” who did “a lot of good things.” And what about Attorney General John Mitchell? He wasn’t a White House staffer; he was a Cabinet member responsible to Congress. “Yes, I guess John did” go to prison—for 19 months—Shultz says, before commenting that the White House goes to some people’s heads. It did not, however, go to his. Asked about Richard Nixon’s assertion that “if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” Shultz is categorical. “There are tough calls, but there’s a difference between legality and illegality. The president is subject to [the] law like everybody else is.”
In the Reagan administration, Shultz offered to resign several times. In the Nixon administration, he did resign, over the president’s reimposition of wage and price controls. “It’s a great mistake to want the job too much,” Shultz says, “because then you do things to keep the job that you probably wouldn’t do otherwise.”
In July 1973, when Shultz was treasury secretary, the public first learned of Nixon’s secret recording system. The duplicity, mendacity, ethnic and racial epithets, spitefulness and criminal complicity captured on the tapes left an indelible tarnish on many of that era’s best and brightest that 40 years of subsequent history have not expunged.
When Shultz learned of the tapes, he thought, “not my problem.” He wasn’t part of “their little group”—the inner cabal that brought down an administration that established the EPA, enacted the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, arguably ended America’s direct involvement in the war in Vietnam and opened the door to China. Despite being in Nixon’s office “nearly every day”—as Time put it—Shultz knew he had never said anything in the Oval Office that he needed to worry about. It wasn’t in his nature.
One episode that Shultz readily admits caused him many sleepless nights was “Iran-Contra,” a convoluted circumvention of the chain of command, Congress and the Constitution worthy of several seasons of Homeland plotting and counterplotting. In the simplified version, members of the National Security Council transferred weapons to Israel, which sold them to Iran—the same Iran that had kept 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Iran’s payments for the weapons were used to support the right-wing “Contra” rebels in Nicaragua (whose funding Congress had strictly forbidden), who were dedicated to the violent overthrow of the revolutionary Sandinista government, which had overthrown the ruthless, corrupt, U.S.-abetted Somoza family, who had controlled Nicaragua from 1936 until they were ousted in 1979 by the Cuba-aligned Sandinistas, whose leader, Daniel Ortega, is now the democratically elected president of the country.
When Shultz first heard inklings of the plan—which also proposed, with Iran’s help, the freeing of American hostages held in Lebanon—he opposed it, stating that paying for hostages was a form of terrorist commerce that would never end. Shultz called the operation a “completely illegal, unconstitutional thing to do” and did what he could to persuade President Reagan to stop it before it spun out of control.
After the story broke in 1986, Reagan explained his stance on national television, using information Shultz knew to be wrong. Shultz went to the White House and told the president that members of his staff and the intelligence community had been lying to him. He left the White House believing he had “not made a dent” in the president’s thinking.
Confrontation-averse Reagan rocked Washington the next day by announcing an investigation. National Security Advisor Adm. John Poindexter resigned. National Security Council staff member Lt. Col. Oliver North was fired. Dozens of people were subsequently investigated; many were indicted; 11 were either convicted or pleaded guilty; and six, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who had not yet gone to trial, were later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.
“What I was fighting for was important,” Shultz says. For the dyed-in-the-wool Republican, it may have been the fight of his life. Some say Shultz saved Reagan’s presidency. Some say he spared the nation from a near suicide brought on by yet another rogue operation running out of the executive branch.
In a turn of events that stunned many, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh wanted to indict Shultz for withholding evidence. On January 19, 1994, the New York Times reported: “Mr. Walsh said his inquiry had found that Mr. Reagan; George P. Shultz, who was Secretary of State; Caspar W. Weinberger, the Defense Secretary; William J. Casey, the director of Central Intelligence, and their aides ‘committed themselves, however reluctantly, to two programs contrary to Congressional policy and contrary to national policy. They skirted the law,’ [Walsh] said, ‘some of them broke the law and almost all of them tried to cover up the President’s willful activities.’ ”
Furor over Walsh’s conclusions erupted immediately. Charles Hill says naming Shultz was “preposterous,” as Shultz had repeatedly tried to alert everyone to the danger.
In the end, history seems to have vindicated Shultz of anything other than acting out of patriotic duty. Earlier in January 1994, a federal court ordered him reimbursed for the $281,000 he had spent defending himself against Walsh’s charges. Shultz—unlike many others who served under Nixon and Reagan—left both administrations with his already estimable reputation enhanced. On January 19, 1989, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Shultz says he has never heard anyone call him a hero, though he is pleased to hear that across the political spectrum people do. Thomas Donahue was an assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration who knew Shultz as a “great scholar” and “model academic practitioner” of labor management relations. He was stunned when Shultz asked him to stay on under Nixon, something he declined to do. “In life you meet a certain number of people who are paragons of virtue, fairness, openness and adherence to principle. Shultz was certainly one of those,” says the lifelong Democrat and former president of the AFL-CIO.
To retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, being a hero means being “uniquely capable,” which he says Shultz was, by bringing together blacks and whites, management and labor, Israelis and Russians, and the United States and the USSR on previously intractable issues. Mattis, a Hoover fellow who replaced Gen. David Petraeus as commander of the U.S. Central Command, says today’s Marines look back upon the Marines of Shultz’s generation as “giants among us.” “No one,” Mattis says, “can go wrong when confronting a tough decision by asking himself, ‘What would George Shultz do?’ ”
Shultz spent nearly 12 years in the Cabinet and is one of only two people in history to hold four different posts there. There is no question that he once wielded a very big stick. In a 1971 cover story, Time called him “almost an Assistant President” on matters economic and otherwise.
These days, Shultz carries a much smaller stick, a
silver-headed cane given to him by California Democratic powerbroker Willie Brown that he would prefer people call a “walking stick.” While in government, Shultz survived five or six assassination attempts—he’s lost count—including a bombing in La Paz, Bolivia, that just missed blowing his car over a cliff. Despite this and dealing with dozens of tyrants and dictators, he says the only person ever to intimidate him was Mr. Metzger, an English teacher who told him, “Shultz, good enough isn’t good enough!”
Though he may not walk as briskly as he once did, two fundamental characteristics identified by Time 45 years ago remain the same: Shultz holds “quietly but firmly to his ideas” and is “supremely self-confident.” Nor has all the fight gone out of him.
In January 2015, Shultz, Henry Kissinger and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sat down in the Capitol to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As they did, protesters from the feminist antiwar organization Code Pink began demanding that Kissinger be arrested for war crimes. Shultz stood up and said, “I salute Henry Kissinger,” prompting the senators to do the same. When the protesters didn’t stop, Shultz pushed banner-waving 57-year-old protestor Tighe Barry. What was a 94-year-old doing taking on a man two-thirds his age?
“It was just instinctive,” Shultz says. “I thought I should do something about it, so I did. And it worked.” The Code Pink contingent was removed from the room.
In the 17th century, British poet George Herbert wrote that living well is the best revenge. By that standard, George Shultz has vanquished pretty much all his adversaries. The former “Secretary of Everything” is healthy, wealthy, remarkably busy and—by almost all accounts—wise.
In California and around the world, he and his second wife, Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, know pretty much everyone there is to know. When they are not at Tree House, they are likely traveling, out and about, or entertaining at Sky House, their Russian Hill duplex penthouse with unimpeded 360-degree views of San Francisco. At Sky House, the couple often wakes up looking down on the fog. On the golf course, he made the second of his two lifetime holes-in-one when he was 90. “It was very satisfying.”
Shultz has had to say goodbye to many he once held close. To German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. To his buddy, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman. To Margaret Thatcher. To Ronald Reagan. Yet he claims his circle isn’t getting smaller, it’s getting bigger. He’s making new friends all the time.
The secret isn’t complicated. “Keep doing things. . . . Be lucky in love. . . . Live in the future.” This he does through work, his five children, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “They’re the inspiration for life. . . . You say to yourself, ‘What kind of life are they going to inherit, and is there anything I can do to make it better?’ That’s my motivation.”
And if someday their country calls upon those children to do their duty and put themselves in harm’s way, as so many of Shultz’s generation were asked to do? “I hope . . . that they do the patriotic thing, which is serve.” And whatever comes, comes? “Whatever comes, comes.”
Robert L. Strauss, MA/MBA ’84, is a recipient of the State Department’s Meritorious Honor Award. This is his 25th contribution to Stanford.
- You must log in to comment.
This is a wonderful profile of an enigmatic oldie but goodie.
A lot was revealed in a circumspect way, mirroring Shultz himself.
A pleasure to read and good to reflect on a very recent but very different world order.
Posted by Mrs. Hannah Silverman on Mar 10, 2016 7:41 AM
Fabulous story. Thank you so much for writing this.
Posted by Dr. Janice LeCocq on Mar 12, 2016 12:38 PM
As a follower of foreign policy for many years, I appreciated the nuance and texture of this article. The article provided me the context needed to reflect on Shultz and the period of history he imprinted with his actions. Thank you for thoughtful piece.
Posted by Ms. Julie Reinganum on Mar 17, 2016 11:28 AM
A good read, well researched and well written. Michael Bates
Posted by Dr. Michael Bates on Mar 18, 2016 8:24 AM
Great article about a great public servant and a great American. Thank you for reminding us of a better time in US governance.
Posted by Mr. Jon Ivester on Mar 18, 2016 3:54 PM
"In the end, history seems to have vindicated Shultz of anything other than acting out of patriotic duty?" What history? It was Shultz's patriotic duty to enrich himself from massive government contracts (Bechtel), to participate in offensive warfare (Iraq), and to batter a protestor (McCain hearing)? His friends Kissinger and Rumsfeld are war criminals, and as Secretary of the Treasury, he supported and enabled a fascist Wall Street. Men such as George Shultz are the opposite of patriots.
Posted by Mr. John Harris on Mar 20, 2016 2:28 PM
What a thoughtful piece of writing. I especially appreciate the context in terms of both the historical facts and opinions as well as current political pressures. There are many nuances and facets to consider, and as usual, the Stanford Magazine challenges us to think more deeply. Thanks for the insights.
Posted by Ms. Emily Liggett on Mar 29, 2016 9:53 AM
"The American people are tired of hearing about Iran-Contra." -----George Schultz, who took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, until he got tired.
Posted by Mr. Mark Smith on Apr 17, 2016 11:48 AM