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.”
Shultz recalls that Reagan hung tough when recession threatened, then bit, in his first term, and that he hung tough against the Soviet Union — reversing the policies of détente. “Détente said, ‘We’re here, you’re here, that’s life, the name of the game is peaceful coexistence.’ Reagan said, ‘No, they have a very unstable system, and it’s not going to last. It’s going to change’” — and he helped precipitate that change. Under détente, you would never have said that Communism was destined for the ash heap of history, and you would never have called the Soviet Union an evil empire.
Shultz smiles at remembering Paul Nitze, the urbane, veteran diplomat. He was testifying before a panel of senators, being worked over by the Democrats. One of them said, “How can you serve in an administration whose president calls the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’?” Nitze answered, “Did you ever consider the possibility that it’s true?”
In December 1988, at the very end of the Reagan administration, Gorbachev gave a speech at the U.N., and it was clear from this speech, says Shultz, that the Cold War was over. Yes, “the endgame was managed very well by President Bush” — the first President Bush. “I’m not disputing that.” Still, “it was basically over — all over but the shouting.” And the Cold War, of course, contains many lessons for the current War on Terror.
Shultz was an éminence grise in the George W. Bush camp as the Texas governor was gearing up to run for president. Shultz led discussions of policy, involving various luminaries. Bush enjoyed the give-and-take, Shultz recalls. “And he knew how to ask questions.” Anyone can ask the first question, says Shultz — but then you have to go on to ask the second, third, and fourth ones; you have to bore in on a problem. And this, says Shultz, Bush did very effectively.
One time, at the governor’s mansion in Austin, Shultz and his wife spent an evening with Bush and the former defense secretary, Dick Cheney. As they were leaving, Shultz said to his wife, “You know, those two guys clicked” — Bush and Cheney. You could see it. Just as Shultz could see, earlier — in his living room — that Bush and Condoleezza Rice clicked.
I ask Shultz a question of the hour: whether those of us who supported the Iraq War should now be embarrassed about it, given the difficulty and anguish of it. Shultz says, “Well, I’m a person who supported the Iraq War.” Then he proceeds with characteristic orderliness: All the intelligence said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — chemical and biological. Furthermore, his nuclear ambitions were plain. As the invasion demonstrated, the intelligence was wrong — but “there are some things that haven’t gotten much publicity, and I don’t know quite why.” (I know why. But Shultz has much greater faith in the objectivity and disinterest of the media than I do.) Post-invasion reports have shown that Saddam had weapons programs on the shelf, ready to go, just as soon as U.N. inspection collapsed, as it was bound to do. Moreover, he had terrorist training camps operating under his gaze.
All of this means that, if we had not acted, Saddam “would have been a big problem, and you would be writing stories about, ‘Why can’t anyone connect the dots?’” Shultz concludes, “I think it’s obvious that after the initial victory we didn’t handle things right, but I don’t apologize for being in favor of going in.” Shultz also believes, incidentally, that the world will think better of George W. Bush later than it does now.
As for the general War on Terror, he sees three stages, which are as follows: First, we were attacked constantly by terrorists — going back to the 1970s and culminating in 9/11 — and never did anything about it. Second, after those horrible attacks on that horrible day, we reacted. Now — in a third stage — we must achieve “sustainability.” We have to put things on a “sustainable basis,” which is to say, we have to institutionalize, or regularize, our efforts. This, we did in the Cold War, with a number of “sustainable policies”: the Marshall Plan, NATO, Radio Free Europe, and so on. These programs were not particularly subject to partisan argument, and when a new administration came in, the programs essentially stayed. Shultz gives an example of a present need: We must decide, once and for all, how to treat terrorist detainees — they certainly can’t be treated like traditional POWs.
And, during the Cold War, we bothered to learn a lot about peoples behind the Iron Curtain, and how to communicate with them. Have we done this with the Arab and Islamic world? “No way”; we’re “nowhere near it.”
Further, says Shultz, if we are to attain victory in the War on Terror, we have to borrow a page from the beginning of the Cold War and come up with a containment policy for today: “Our object is to contain the spread of radical Islam, that uses terror, and help whatever you want to call it — mainstream Islam — learn how to be part of the modern world in a manner consistent with their religion.” Also, the opening up of economies makes a big difference in the opening up of governments: as in Chile, Taiwan, and South Korea, to name three.
Speaking of economics, I ask whether capitalism has achieved some final victory over socialism, and Shultz quickly shakes his head: “You have to keep working all the time.” In fact, there is a struggle going on in America right now: “What’s the health-care debate about, really? It’s not about whether there are going to be adequate resources for people to have health care. It’s about whether those resources will be in the hands of a bureaucracy, which administers a health-care system à la Canada and Europe, or in the hands of consumers, who will decide for themselves.” Shultz’s latest book, written with John B. Shoven, is about reforming health care and Social Security.
Shultz is sunnier than the average conservative, for example about the press. (I suggested as much earlier.) In his years in government, he had a pretty positive experience with the Fourth Estate. He explains that reporters around the White House are political, concerned about who’s up and who’s down. But the reporters in the departments — the cabinet departments — tend to be diligent and conscientious types who know their subject well. Similarly, Shultz had positive experiences with departmental bureaucracies, the source of so much conservative frustration — quite apart from whether such a bureaucracy should run American health care. When he became labor secretary, people told Shultz that he, as a Republican, could never get anything done. The department worked for George Meany and the AFL-CIO, period. But Shultz says that he and other political appointees “worked hard, and the career people responded. They knocked themselves out for us, in an honest way.” Shultz had an equally happy experience at the State Department: The career people may not have adored Reagan’s foreign policy, but they too “knocked themselves out for us. I have nothing but good things to say about them.”
I ask the former SecState about various world trouble spots, including North Korea. He says, “We know that North Korea has an unblemished track record of not keeping its promises, so the pressure has to be kept on. But I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that there could be in the next few years a real shift on the Korean peninsula — basically because the North is so bad, and it’s getting worse. They can’t feed themselves. Everybody wants to get out if they can, and would if they could. I would think we ought to do more to facilitate that.” Shultz remembers the Eastern European states, and the kind of underground railroad they had. And he recalls a joke about Erich Honecker, the East German chief.
He had this hot new girlfriend, and he was crazy about her. He said, “I’ll do anything for you.” “Anything, Erich?” “Yes, anything.” “All right then: I want you to tear down the Berlin Wall.” “Oh!” says Honecker. “You want to be alone with me!”
In the present U.S. election, Shultz has a candidate: John McCain. And I ask whether a Democratic victory would badly damage the American position in the world. He says, “I don’t know. I’m not a person who sees catastrophe. Our country’s pretty good and stable.” He then quotes his late friend and “hero,” Milton Friedman, who himself was paraphrasing Adam Smith: “There’s a lot of ruin in the United States.” And, as far as I’m concerned, ruin could be reduced if more men like George Shultz came to the fore.
– This article appeared in the February 11, 2008, issue of National Review.