George P. Shultz lived an American life, and a long life. He was born on December 13, 1920 — in the last few months of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. He has died a little more than a hundred years later, in the first weeks of Joe Biden’s presidency.
Shultz died on February 6, Ronald Reagan’s birthday, which is somewhat poetic.
He grew up in Englewood, N.J., and went to a New Jersey college: Princeton, where he majored in economics. During World War II, he served in the Marine Corps, attaining the rank of captain. Afterward, he earned a Ph.D. in industrial economics at MIT.
He taught at MIT, taking a leave of absence in 1955 to serve on President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers. In the 1960s, he was dean of the University of Chicago Business School. Then he joined the Nixon administration: as secretary of labor, budget director, and Treasury secretary.
Thereafter, it was business. Shultz held executive positions at Bechtel, the engineering and construction firm. In the summer of 1982, President Reagan asked him to succeed Alexander Haig as secretary of state.
In that same year, Henry Kissinger came out with the second volume of his memoirs: “I met no one in public life for whom I developed greater respect and affection.” He was talking about Shultz. “Highly analytical, calm, and unselfish,” he continued, “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.”
Finally, “if I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate in a crisis, it would be George Shultz.”
With steady competence, Shultz helped Reagan navigate the foreign-policy challenges of the 1980s — in particular, what turned out to be the final chapters of the Cold War. In a 2008 interview, Shultz put it this way:
“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.’”
Reagan and his team helped precipitate that change.
Many conservatives were impatient with Shultz, considering him too moderate. Reagan, to the annoyance of many, kept siding with Shultz. With characteristic wit, Patrick J. Buchanan said, “The president ought to kick some fannies, starting with the one with the tattoo.”
Tattoo? It was known that, in college, Shultz had gotten a Princeton tiger imprinted on his left cheek.
Secretary Shultz was a great believer in the Foreign Service, and career diplomats worked in harmony with him, toward the administration’s goals. Shultz also devised a test for U.S. ambassadors.
They had gone through all the vetting, the Senate confirmations, and so on. Meeting them in his office, Shultz would then tell them, “You have to pass one more test.” They would groan. “Yes, you have to walk over to that globe and demonstrate to me that you can identify your country.” Inevitably, they would point to the country to which they had been assigned.
It had been a trick question. Shultz meant: the United States. “Never forget what country you’re representing,” he would say.
In the last 30-plus years of his life, he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, associated primarily with the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He loved the Bay Area, even if he didn’t share its general politics.
One time, he was at a charity dinner, where Lily Tomlin, the comedian and actress, was providing the entertainment. What she was doing, actually, was delivering a political monologue against George W. Bush. Quietly, Shultz got up and left.
Did he have a problem living among Democrats? Of course not, he said. “But if I go someplace and it’s supposed to be a good time, I don’t like that it’s political. I don’t like it when I go to church and the pastor has a political speech.”
Though known for foreign policy, Shultz remained an economist, and a free-marketeer. He was always looking for solutions to public-policy problems, especially the biggest ones. In 2008, he authored a book with the Stanford economist John B. Shoven: Putting Our House in Order: A Guide to Social Security and Health Care Reform.
There was one blot on his record, and it came in the first half of the 2010s, when he was in his nineties: He was a director of Theranos, the health-technology company that turned out to be fraudulent. He defended the company for too long, and was embarrassed about it in the end.
In any event, he never stopped working, never stopped thinking, and never stopped looking for contributions to make.
The National Review Institute awarded Shultz its William F. Buckley Jr. Prize for Leadership in Political Thought. That was in 2016, at San Francisco’s City Hall. Our editor, Richard Lowry, conducted a Q&A with the honoree.
Just last November, Shultz contributed a remarkable article to The Foreign Service Journal: “On Trust.” He defended a veteran ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, who had been ignominiously recalled by the Trump State Department. He hailed her “courage, determination, and patriotism,” among other qualities.
In the above-cited 2008 interview, Shultz described himself as “basically a university man,” devoted to ideas. “The ideas serve as your compass. And maybe you have to tack and whatnot, but your compass tells you where you’re going.”
Asked about the American future, he cited Milton Friedman — “my friend and hero.” Friedman, adapting Adam Smith, would say, “There’s a lot of ruin in the United States.” Yes. Nonetheless, we could use some more George P. Shultzes.