Impromptus

Shultz at 100, &c.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz with President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1986 (National Archives)
On George Shultz, Bo Jackson, Chuck Yeager, Rafer Johnson, Paolo Rossi, Vikram Seth, and more

On December 13, George P. Shultz turned 100. What a life, and an American life, right? Marine in World War II. Economist, academic, business exec. Labor secretary, budget director, Treasury secretary. SecState.

Henry Kissinger, in the second volume of his memoirs (1982), said this about Shultz: “I met no one in public life for whom I developed greater respect and affection.” He also said, “If I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate in a crisis, it would be George Shultz.”

Some of us righties were not too happy with Shultz during the Reagan administration. We suspected him of moderation. Pat Buchanan said something like the following: “The president ought to kick some fannies, starting with the one with the tattoo.”

This may require an explanation. Shultz went to Princeton, whose mascot is the tiger. Word got out that Shultz had a tiger tattoo — on his left cheek (specifically).

It soon became apparent to most of us that George Shultz, with Reagan, handled the last chapter of the Cold War superbly.

At the beginning of 2008, I went to see Shultz, to talk about the world. Indeed, the resulting piece was titled “Around the World with Shultz.” Let me give you the opening (which is in the present tense, as the whole piece is):

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.

Have a little more:

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.”

In the course of our conversation, Shultz told me a Honecker joke — a joke about Erich Honecker, the East German boss. It went like this:

Honecker 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!” said Honecker. “You want to be alone with me!”

(Far be it from me to explain a joke, but an explanation may be helpful, at this juncture: If the Berlin Wall came down, people would leave as fast as they could.)

The following is from the end of my piece — 2008, remember:

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.”

Well, there’d better be.

Just recently, Shultz published a piece in The Foreign Service Journal. It is called “On Trust,” and an interesting piece it is. I would like to quote one paragraph:

It is tempting to believe that good diplomats are born, not made, and that our recruiting system should simply find such people and the rest will take care of itself. There is some truth in this, because the personal qualities of integrity, empathy, problem-solving attitudes and the ability to build trusting human relationships are critical to success as a diplomat. Traits like these, plus courage, determination and patriotism, are what made Marie Yovanovitch such an effective American ambassador to Ukraine. She had other credentials, too, that enabled her to go to the top of her profession, one that, like other professions, requires a solid background in specialized knowledge.

Yes. I was thinking the other day: Marie Yovanovitch would make a good U.S. ambassador to Russia. She has been ambassador to three former “republics” of the Soviet Union: Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and, as Shultz says, Ukraine. She is the daughter and granddaughter of refugees from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. She speaks Russian. She is free of illusions. She would be good, yes.

It would be a pleasure to talk with Shultz again. I’ll look for an opportunity.

• Bob Good is a new congressman from Virginia. He is not to be confused with Bob Goodlatte, who served in the House from Virginia for 26 years: 1993 to 2019. Last weekend, Bob Good spoke to a Trump rally, saying,

“I can’t tell you how great it is to look out there and see your faces. This looks like a group of people that get that this is a phony pandemic.”

There is a sickness in our country — quite apart from the coronavirus.

Here is a report out of Austin, Texas. H-E-B, by the way, is a grocery chain.

At the start of the pandemic, H-E-B was quick to enforce COVID-19 safety precautions. By April, it was requiring customers and staff members to wear masks in stores.

Fast forward eight months and things may look a little differently depending on where you shop.

According to a report from VICE news, an H-E-B manager at one location said they have been bullied by anti-mask customers so much that they no longer feel safe to enforce the same rules that have been in place for months.

Here is a report from the West:

In Boise, Idaho, public health officials about to vote on a four-county mask mandate abruptly ended a meeting Tuesday evening because of fears for their safety amid anti-mask protests outside the building and at some of their homes.

One health board member tearfully announced she had to rush home to be with her child because of the protesters, who were seen on video banging on buckets, blaring air horns and sirens, and blasting a sound clip of gunfire from the violence-drenched movie “Scarface” outside her front door.

Here is a report on Joyce Warshaw, of Dodge City, Kan. She was mayor of the town but abruptly resigned, after receiving threats. She had supported a mask mandate. She said,

“This is harder for me than people realize. I really love this city with all my heart. I still believe in this city, and I believe in their ability to not harm one another.”

Joyce Warshaw was a Republican but is now unaffiliated — “simply because the Republican Party isn’t the Republican Party that I know.”

A lot of us know what she means. Yes, there is a sickness in our country — many — apart from this virus that is killing hundreds of thousands.

• Bo Jackson is a great athlete, and has been asked for his autograph countless times. He said the other day that he had asked for only one autograph himself, ever: that of Chuck Yeager. What a tribute, to the late airman.

• Rafer Johnson, the great decathlete, died. From an obit, I learned two things I never knew about him: He played basketball for John Wooden at UCLA. And was president of the student body. A big, big talent.

• Paolo Rossi, the great Italian soccer player, died. He was part of the team that won the World Cup in 1982. By coincidence, I was in Rome on the day of the final. In their excitement, people jumped into the Trevi and other fountains. Seldom have I seen such jubilation in a people.

• A little music? Wang Jie is a highly interesting and talented composer (Chinese-American). For a post on her, go here.

For a review of Fatma Said, in recital, go here. Let me paste one paragraph now:

She sang one encore: that immortal number by Kern and Fields, “The Way You Look Tonight.” That a young woman from Egypt so enjoys singing this hit from Swing Time (a Rogers-Astaire flick) touches my American heart.

For a review of a Christmas concert from Wales, starring Bryn Terfel (who else?), go here. The final two paragraphs:

“You play who you are,” some people say. The older I get, the more I see, and hear, the truth of this. Also, you sing who you are. Recently, I observed to a friend that there is not a more likable guy in the world than Sir Bryn Terfel — if it isn’t Sir Charles Barkley.

Both of them like golf. About two weeks ago, Sir Charles played alongside Phil Mickelson and others in a charity match, shown on television. If Sir Bryn and Sir Charles were paired together — that would be pretty much dream TV, for me.

• Speaking of music, the Cleveland Indians are in the market for a new name — and I suggest the Cleveland Szells. (The Cleveland Orchestra was led by George Szell, the immortal conductor, from 1946 to 1970.) Alternatively, the Cleveland Boudreaux (in honor of Lou Boudreau, the legendary Cleveland shortstop, of course). (Kind of a fun plural, right?)

• In 1993, I read Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy (published that year). It was one of the best reading experiences of my whole life. I was in the spell of that novel until it was done. In 1999, Seth came out with another novel, An Equal Music. I reviewed it under the title “Seth, Rhymes with ‘Great’” (which it does). I borrowed a line from Schumann, which he used about Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius” (which he is) (Seth, I mean) (and Chopin).

Several weeks ago, I learned that the BBC had made a new TV series out of A Suitable Boy. I was anxious. I said, in the spirit of Beavis and Butt-head, “This better be good.”

About a third of the way through the first episode, I was deflated. I found the adaptation trivial — a little dull. Unworthy of the novel. Soon, however, I was in the spell of the series, as I still am. When it is over, I will wail and gnash my teeth, wanting more, and more.

This has been enough of Impromptus. Thank you for joining me, my friends, and have a great weekend.

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