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Secretary for America

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Secretary for America

George Shultz, R.I.P. February 8, 2021
Economy, finance, and budgets
Politics and law
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Economist, academic, business leader, diplomat, and patriot George Shultz has just died at 100. He is one of only two Americans (along with Elliott Richardson) to hold four cabinet-level positions—serving as Secretary of State, Treasury, and Labor, as well as director of the Office of Management and Budget. By legend, he maintained a one-page resume, leading to the “George Shultz Resume Rule,” which I often share with job-seekers: “George Shultz had a one-page resume. If he did it on one page, so can you.”

It’s one thing to have a lot of fancy appointments and another to do something with them. Shultz was determined to accomplish as much as he could, in government and elsewhere. Armed with a degree from Princeton and a Ph.D. from MIT—and with an active-duty stint with the Marines in World War II under his belt—he served on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Dwight Eisenhower. Later, he excelled in the Nixon administration, starting at Labor before going to OMB and then to Treasury. Throughout, he always cared about ideas, and he was heavily involved in the titanic policy debates of those years. As Chris DeMuth, who served on Nixon’s White House staff, recalled, Nixon “orchestrated intense, often fruitful debates over foreign, domestic and fiscal policy among the brilliant professoriate he had assembled: Henry Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Arthur Burns, George Shultz, Paul McCracken and Herbert Stein.”

Serious people knew that Shultz was serious—and reliable ideologically. His blessing convinced Nixon to go ahead with Democrat Moynihan’s Family Assistance Plan, a negative income-tax concept ahead of its time. The plan failed to get through Congress; had it passed, it might have forestalled the development of our enormous welfare bureaucracy. In 1971, when Shultz attended a meeting with Nixon and Milton Friedman about Nixon’s misguided policy of wage and price controls, Nixon asked Friedman not to blame Shultz for the “monstrosity” of the policy. Friedman replied: “I don’t blame George. I blame you, Mr. President.” Friedman never again got to visit the Nixon White House, but he had appropriately defended Shultz’s honor. (Years later, Shultz hosted Texas governor George W. Bush at his home in Palo Alto, introducing him to some of Shultz’s Hoover Institution colleagues and giving the relatively unknown Bush his valuable ideological endorsement.)

Shultz deployed effective management techniques that he would use in his multiple high-power roles. In the Nixon White House, he and domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman set up a 7:30 a.m. daily meeting between the top OMB and Domestic Policy Council staff to go over the day’s key issues. According to Ehrlichman, they had established the meeting in mutual recognition of the fact “that there was great potential for rivalry and jealousy unless we kept our two organizations in very close touch.” The meeting operated under strict rules: everyone had to contribute, and it had to end at 8:00 sharp. It quickly became a go-to meeting for other staffers, as “these sessions were virtually the only place in the White House where one could find out what was actually going on, as far as substance and policy were concerned.” Shultz knew how to get things done in a rivalrous White House environment. As Ehrlichman recalled, he “had a talent for compromise and accommodation that had lubricated the surfaces between his staff and mine.”

Shultz would take his concept of tightly governed meetings with him to the Reagan administration, where he served as Secretary of State. The Reagan administration was legendary for its rivalries, and Shultz came in as a replacement for the deposed Alexander Haig, who had alienated First Lady Nancy Reagan and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, as well as Chief of Staff Jim Baker and his deputy, Michael Deaver. Taking over for Haig was fraught, as he had had a rapid and high-profile fall from grace. Shultz was quite aware of what had undone Haig, recalling that “Haig’s bristling manner did not suit the Meese-Baker-Deaver circle, and bureaucratic turf battles were constantly being waged between the White House and the State Department.” Shultz certainly had his battles with Weinberger, but he recognized that working with the White House brass rather than against them would serve his purposes better, and he developed close relationships with Reagan’s top advisers. Recognizing where the power lay in the Reagan White House, he joined Baker, Deaver, and Nancy Reagan in ousting William Clark out of the position of National Security Adviser, and Baker became a close Shultz ally.

As Secretary of State, Shultz understood that the word of the United States meant something. He initially resisted pulling U.S. troops out of Lebanon after the Hezbollah terrorist bombing that killed 241 Americans—including 220 Marines—in Beirut. “If we are driven out of Lebanon,” he said, “the message will be sent that relying on the Soviet Union pays off and that relying on the United States is fatal.” But he also recognized that Reagan had already established that his word was reliable. In 1981, Reagan fired 11,000 air-traffic controllers who were striking in violation of their contract. The pressure on Reagan during this key moment early in his presidency was intense, but Reagan did not back down. Shultz called it Reagan’s most important foreign policy decision—the Soviets were watching, and the move gave Moscow a measure of the new president.

The State Department was also the source of the most legendary George Shultz story. Shultz would call all newly minted advisers up to his office before sending them off on their new postings. He would walk the ambassadors over to the globe he had in his office, and tell them, “I’m going to spin the globe and I want you to put your hand on your country.” After each ambassador earnestly pointed to the country to which he or she was headed, Shultz would correct them, explaining that their country was the United States of America.

Freedom was a priority for Shultz. He pressed hard for the release of Soviet “refuseniks,” Jews who wanted to leave the repression of the Soviet Union for the freedom of life in Israel. He called the moment when refusenik Ida Nudel called him and said, “This is Ida Nudel. I’m in Jerusalem,” one of the most moving he had had as Secretary of State. But Shultz’s long tenure serving the nation gave him many such moments to choose from. He was not just a former cabinet secretary. He was a Secretary for America.

Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images

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