Palo Alto, Calif. — In the second volume of his memoirs — published in 1982 — Henry Kissinger said something extraordinary about George Shultz: “I met no one in public life for whom I developed greater respect and affection.” Kissinger continued,
Highly analytical, calm and unselfish, Shultz made up in integrity and judgment for his lack of the flamboyance by which some of his more insecure colleagues attempted to make their mark. He never sought personal advancement. By not threatening anyone’s prerogatives, and, above all, by his outstanding performance, he became the dominant member of every committee he joined. . . . If I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate in a crisis, it would be George Shultz.
In the praise department, you really can’t beat that. But Shultz is used to such praise, being the object of almost universal respect. Remind yourself of the basic biographical facts about him. He was born in 1920, and went to Princeton. (You may remember a story about a particular tiger tattoo.) He went to MIT for a Ph.D. in industrial economics. In time, he became dean of the University of Chicago Business School. Under Nixon, he was secretary of labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and treasury secretary. Under Reagan, he was secretary of state — from 1982 to 1989. The year he left office, he joined the Hoover Institution, on the campus of Stanford University.
And that is where I meet him for a wide-ranging discussion.
As I turn on my tape recorder — uncertain about whether it will work — I say, “Well, I guess we just have to trust it.” Shultz responds, “We always said, ‘Trust but verify’” — or Doveryai, no proveryai
, in Russian. We both chuckle in remembering how it used to drive Gorbachev crazy when Reagan said this. At Shultz’s side is an illuminated globe, and this prompts me to ask him about a test he would give to new U.S. ambassadors. “They’d been through all kinds of exams and so on — confirmation — and I’d say to them, ‘Well, there’s just one more test you have to pass.’” They’d usually groan. “‘You have to walk over to that globe and demonstrate to me that you can identify your country.’ And, inevitably, they would point out the country to which they had been assigned.”
The correct answer, of course, was the United States — that was their country. And Shultz’s moral was, “Never forget what country you’re representing.”
As our interview proceeds, Shultz is fluent and knowledgeable, measured and commanding. You can see why presidents and others have liked to listen to him, and take his advice, over the years. And he looks pretty much like he did when he was secretary of state, except thinner. In addition, you’re perhaps unaccustomed to seeing George Shultz in tennis shoes.
We talk about Reagan, and I point out that his reputation has risen markedly in recent years: Even his old enemies — many of them — have warm things to say about him these days. Shultz cites the book Reagan, in His Own Hand, a collection of pre-presidential writings. Kiron Skinner, a former research assistant to Shultz, spearheaded this project. And it was Shultz who wrote Nancy Reagan recommending that Skinner be given access to the relevant papers. The book shows a keen and questing mind at work, not the dope of anti-Reagan legend.
Shultz also mentions a collection of Reagan letters — and points out that Reagan was an inveterate, unceasing letter-writer. As president, Shultz explains, Reagan insisted on answering at least some of his mail — mail that came from ordinary Americans. He’d take a sampling of letters up to Camp David and answer them there. He would seal those answers up, then hand the envelopes to the staff, for mailing. “They knew where the letters were going, but they didn’t know what they said. It drove them absolutely insane.” Shultz chuckles: “Can you imagine?” As he says, Reagan turned out to have written “beautiful letters, about human subjects.” And “this showed the depth of the man.”
As Shultz talks about Reagan, he makes a familiar point, but makes it particularly well: Reagan had underlying beliefs, and these beliefs went deep; and his policies derived from them. “That’s one reason he was so consistent, I think.” Shultz himself is an idea man, “basically a university man,” he says. “The ideas serve as your compass. And maybe you have to tack and whatnot, but your compass tells you where you’re going.” Eventually, you arrive at your destination, no matter what the zig-zagging. But without a compass, “you’re just moving around.”