Midway through a 12-day trip around Europe with Secretary of State George P. Shultz earlier this month, a television reporter stood in the aisle of the secretary's plane and delivered a mock news broadcast to fellow reporters in the rear of the aircraft.
"Secretary of State George P. Shultz," the reporter began, "today summoned The New York Times correspondent to his cabin and demanded to know why he, Shultz, was on the front page of that newspaper.
"The Times reporter," the mock broadcast continued, "said he didn't know why but maybe his editors in New York had lousy news judgment. Shultz, nevertheless, said he had not made news that deserved being on the front page and was demanding an apology from The Times."
The television reporter ended his broadcast, leaving his colleagues laughing at what, for reporters at least, is one of the grim truths about the new secretary of state who assumed office July 16. He does not make much news nor does he want to.
It is not that he shuns reporters. Shultz made himself available for many hours to reporters traveling with him throughout the seven-nation journey. He spent more hours at on-the-record news conferences at each stop. He just doesn't reveal much. A transcript of his private conversations with journalists would not read much differently from the transcript of his on-the-record sessions.
Shultz is a pleasant, good-natured man, perhaps the ultimate in a low-key public servant at the top of the U.S. government. He is a sharp contrast from Henry A. Kissinger and Alexander M. Haig Jr.. He is more in the mold of Cyrus R. Vance, President Carter's first secretary of state, but may even make less news than did Vance.
Behind the scenes, he apparently is quite successful at official duties, especially in smoothing relations with allies alarmed at one time or another about some U.S. policy. Shultz so far seems to be a big official plus for the country.
But for reporters in the back of the plane, he is the subject of more good-natured jokes than news stories.
Toward the end of the recent journey, one television reporter, batting 0-for-12 in attempts to get on the air with a single story out of the Shultz trip, said that his wife had put out a missing persons bulletin on him and that his brother had offered to buy a minute of air time for him.
The Smithsonian Institution, the reporter advised his colleagues, was bidding for his typewriter because it had traveled 32,000 miles with a U.S. secretary of state through seven allied capitals without having its keys struck once.
Shultz is so unlikely to utter an unambiguous statement of policy or break new ground in public that reporters had to devise a strategy to ask questions of almost anyone else appearing with the secretary at a joint news conference in an attempt to find out what was happening.
Thus, one of the few front-page stories of the trip was produced by Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, a straight-talking Cabinet member who appeared with Shultz at a crowded news conference in Brussels. Block said loud and clear that there would be no trade war with the Europeans but that the United States had not ruled out the possibility of dumping some of its agricultural products around the world if an answer were not found soon to the heavily subsidized European products.
Behind the scenes, Shultz apparently cooled quarrels between U.S. and European ministers and devised a plan to study the most vexing issues and report back in March. But if Block had not been at the press conference, it would have been difficult to be sure what was happening.
In Paris, Shultz appeared alone at a news conference and performed so cautiously that it was impossible to know what had occurred during his talks there.
Actually, something important had taken place. France and the United States had been involved in a bitter fight over trade policy toward the Soviet Union. Behind the scenes, Shultz had cooled things and obtained French agreement to the kind of studies of which Shultz, the economist and conciliator, is so fond.
But only late that same night, when French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson was at Shultz's side, were reporters able to learn that an important bit of news had developed.