George P. Shultz, a widely respected statesman and economist through many productive years on the public stage, has died. He was 100.
“Shultz was a key player, alongside President Ronald Reagan, in changing the direction of history by using the tools of diplomacy to bring the Cold War to an end,” the Hoover Institution at Stanford University said in announcing his death on Saturday.
Shultz began his government service in the Eisenhower administration during the 1950s and would remain a public figure through the Obama presidency. He was, however, best known for his stints in the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon (as Labor secretary, director of Office of Management and Budget, Treasury secretary) and Ronald Reagan (secretary of State).
“George Shultz has helped to make the world a freer and more peaceful place,” Reagan said in January 1989.
Shultz was known as an able, steady and respectable conservative, a family man very rarely seen, as the expression goes, in the vicinity of a colorful anecdote. But, if, for instance, you read Reagan’s published diaries, there he is, page after page, meeting after meeting, consultation after consultation.
“Shultz had an analytical, managerial mind,” John Patrick Diggins wrote in “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History.“ “As secretary of state, he most often chose the route of negotiation.”
Shultz took particular pride in the Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev nuclear disarmament breakthroughs that occurred while he was secretary of State. “He committed his entire presidency to it, and his achievements speak for themselves,” Shultz wrote of Reagan in a 2015 New York Times column. “Among the many measurements of his success, the number of nuclear weapons in existence today is about one-third the number at the time of the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland.”
Former Defense Secretary William Perry said on Sunday: “I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the role that Shultz had on the American political scene and causing the world to think about the danger of nuclear weapons and leading the charge to abolish nuclear weapons.”
Years after the nuclear talks, Shultz told an interviewer for a documentary: “It was a privilege for me to be in office when the tectonic plates of the world changed. Basically the Cold War came to an end and the beginning of the world economy took place. And all these things are very satisfying to be part of them.”
For decades after the Reagan era, he would remain one of the nation’s most influential statesmen, traveling, for instance, in 2015 with fellow 90-something Henry Kissinger to China. A few months later, Shultz visited Israel as honorary chair of the Israel Democracy Institute’s International Advisory Council, where the Times of Israel characterized him “as a rock of unshifting fundamentals.”
Shultz’s behavior, character and reputation were such that he was not tarnished by reasonably close proximity to two destructive scandals, Watergate (Nixon) and Iran-Contra (Reagan). This was no accident: Shultz had a reputation for being a smart, common-sense professional who was above political scheming.
“George Shultz was a towering figure in the history of the State Department,“ Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday. “The work we do now is shaped by his legacy.“
George Pratt Shultz was born Dec. 13, 1920, in New York City and grew up in nearby Englewood, N.J. After graduating from Princeton University in 1942, he joined the Marines and served in the Pacific. Decades later, he told the Times of Israel, he learned a vital lesson in boot camp that would serve him through his career: “The sergeant hands me my rifle. He says, Take good care of this rifle, this is your best friend. But remember one thing: Never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger. No empty threats.”
During his wartime service, he met a military nurse, Helena Maria O’Brien, whom he married in 1946. The couple had five children; Helena (whom he called “O’Bie”) died of cancer in 1995.
After World War II, he returned to academia and a stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a doctorate in industrial economics. Starting in the 1950s, he would find his expertise in demand in Washington, first as a senior staff economist for Dwight Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he was a consultant on labor issues.
Shultz became Nixon’s secretary of Labor in 1969. During his tenure, the department implemented the “Philadelphia Plan,” which required government contractors bidding on federal construction contracts to hire some nonwhite workers, effectively barring trade unions from remaining all white.
He was also the de facto chair of a Nixon administration effort — 16 years after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision — to finally integrate schools in seven Deep South states. Shultz had the delicate task of bringing everyone together to air their complaints and frustrations before Nixon would make the final push for integration. Shultz later wrote that he told Nixon: “You’re the president of the whole country. We should do everything we can to see that the schools open and operate peacefully and well.”
In 1970, Nixon tabbed Shultz to be the first head of OMB. Two years later, he would succeed John Connally Jr. as secretary of Treasury. “Current Biography Yearbook 1988” said, “Shultz was probably the third most influential man in the United States government” during those years, after Nixon and Kissinger.
Shultz, however, proved to be a thorn in Nixon’s side when he and IRS Commissioner Johnnie Walters disregarded the president’s request to have the IRS harass Nixon’s perceived enemies. White House tapes would later show the president came to regard Shultz as ungrateful and naive. “George doesn’t know politics from a can of sh–,” Nixon was heard saying in a taped Oval Office recording.
“Without individuals such as Shultz and Walters,” wrote Michael Koncewicz in “They Said No to Nixon,” “the IRS may have succumbed to becoming an extension of Nixon’s darkest impulses.”
After the Nixon years, Shultz moved into the corporate world, becoming an executive at the Bechtel Group, and returned to the academic world, at Stanford University. When Reagan was elected, he installed Alexander Haig as secretary of State, but after a dicey first year, the overreaching Haig left office in July 1982 and Reagan immediately selected Shultz to replace him.
According to H.W. Brands’ “Reagan: The Life,” the president was unwilling to announce Haig’s departure until he had his replacement lined up. Brands wrote that when Reagan reached out to him, Shultz realized he needed to answer immediately. “Mr. President, I’m on board,” he said.
“He has the potential to be one of the greatest secretaries of State of all times,” Illinois Sen. Charles Percy said as Shultz was confirmed 97-0. From the outset, Shultz’s professionalism put the State Department on different footing, and he gave Reagan loyal support.
“Shultz, unlike Haig was courteous and patient,” Diggins wrote in his 2007 book, “the right qualities for a diplomat who prefers negotiation to escalation.”
Shultz needed those qualities when it came to dealing with a fellow member of Reagan’s Cabinet, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, a confrontational fellow veteran of the Nixon administration and Bechtel. The Beltway was rife with talk of discord. In December 1984, The New York Times reported the two “are reported at odds on virtually all foreign policy issues, often to the frustration and concern of the White House.” It didn’t help matters that on some issues, Shultz was the more hawkish and on others, Weinberger was. Sometimes the issues over which they fought seemed trivial, such as the question of selling computers to Romania.
Shultz, the Times wrote, “is by nature and training a professor, mediator and private man. He prefers conciliation to confrontation. Often impassive — a colleague described him as ‘sphinxlike’ — Shultz is a man of enormous self-assurance.” The same article noted: “He appears content to stay out of the news.”
His 6½ years atop the State Department left him to deal with situations from the Caribbean to China, but two events stood out. The low point was the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal, which involved the selling of weapons to Iran to fund guerrillas in Nicaragua, neither of which was authorized by Congress. Reagan’s efforts to handle the situation seemed to only make matters worse, and Shultz found himself as one of the few voices in the administration pushing to get the administration back on course. “Reagan thought Shultz was blowing things out of proportion,” according to “Reagan: The Life.”
There were calls for Shultz to resign, but, he would later write, “No successor could function in this job, I felt, unless the terrible situation was put right.” So, Shultz remained, and some of the rogue-policymaking apparatus would end up back in his hands. The scandal would make a household name of Oliver North and bring down a number of leading Washington figures, including Weinberger.
Ultimately, Shultz’s greatest influence with Reagan would come on the subject of arms control. In a March 1983 memo, Shultz listed multiple areas in which he thought talks could lead to better U.S.-Soviet relations, including arms control. This impetus gained steam when Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union, which Reagan had dubbed the “evil empire” at one point.
“It always seemed to me Gorbachev was a genuine realist,” Shultz wrote in his 2016 book, “Learning from Experience,” noting that Gorbachev had come up through the ranks, unlike previous Soviet leaders.
When Shultz first met Gorbachev, Reagan gave Shultz a chance to offer Gorbachev an opportunity to shake up the status quo of the Cold War. According to Brands’ book, Shultz said: “President Reagan told me to look you squarely in the eyes and tell you: ‘Ronald Reagan believes this is a very special moment in the history of mankind.'”
What followed were multiple summits with Gorbachev. They ultimately led to a sharp reduction in nuclear weapons and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan; these occurred at the same time Gorbachev was pursuing a not-unrelated course of liberalization within the Soviet Union — as well as indicating to the Warsaw Pact states that they were on their own. In 1989, less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down. It was a heady time, marking the end of a Cold War that had lasted decades and scarred many.
In the final moments of Reagan’s presidency, Shultz received the Presidential Medal of Freedom: “For years of public service and his vital part in inaugurating a new era of hope in foreign policy, his countrymen honor him.’’
For the next decades, Shultz would speak on many international issues behind the scenes and serve as an informal adviser, particularly to George W. Bush. He would be in demand as a speaker and writer, someone who could be counted on to offer cogent analysis of world crises. Whenever he stopped speaking for more than a few minutes, it seemed like someone would present him with an award or honorary degree.
Shultz, who also returned to Bechtel and to Stanford, was frank about his fears for the world. “For centuries, we somehow managed to separate war from religion, and now it’s back,” he told the Times of Israel in February 2016. “War with a religious base is much more dangerous, because it has a capacity to spread, which it’s doing.”
Shultz also spoke out on domestic issues, touting, for instance, the legalization of recreational drugs and the benefits of driving a Prius. He urged that climate change be dealt with.
“I’ve always tried to live in the future,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in 2011, “and think about things and how to make things better. If you have great-grandchildren around, and their pictures are looking at you, well, that’s the future.”
And Shultz — who had an opinion article published in The Washington Post at the time of his 100th birthday — never lost his ability to impress others with his ideas.
“I was in a meeting with him a week or so ago,” Perry said on Sunday, “where he was the sharpest and most provocative person in the room.”
Bryan Bender and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.
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