What Shultz possessed to an unusual extent was good judgment. He could detect bad ideas taking shape in the bureaucracy almost as if by smell. And he tried to stop them, even when that meant challenging Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, whose policy ideas he mistrusted, or President Ronald Reagan, whose National Security Council staff concocted a bizarre plot — to fund the contras in Nicaragua by selling arms to Iran — that Shultz abhorred.
Shultz could be a genial companion and a social lion. He was Post publisher Katharine Graham’s favorite tennis partner, and he had an easy, reassuring smile, like a hero in a cowboy movie. But a foolish question or a half-baked idea would draw that chilling silence and the thousand-yard stare.
Traveling on Shultz’s trips abroad was a tutorial in hardheaded diplomacy. I covered him in 1984 and 1985 as diplomatic correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and watched him lay the groundwork for the thaw with Russia and rise of Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the cascade of events that, a few years later, brought the end of the Cold War.
Shultz was a link in the great chain of public service that sustained America from President Harry Truman’s administration in 1945 all the way to the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump, when, suddenly and bizarrely, public service was spurned.
An economist by training, Shultz seemed able to do almost anything: He was labor secretary, budget director and treasury secretary for President Richard Nixon. Reagan summoned him back to Washington as secretary of state after the ragged tenure of Alexander Haig.
Shultz’s early years at State were enveloped by the Middle East. He struggled to undo the damage wrought by Israel’s unwise invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He developed a close friendship with Robert Ames, a legendary CIA case officer who, by then, had moved to national intelligence officer for the Near East and became, in effect, Shultz’s personal adviser for the region. Ames helped him craft a Palestinian peace plan that was visionary but stillborn.
Ames’s death in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983 was a personal blow to Shultz. He had been a hopeful supporter of Arab aspirations; but after Ames’s passing, Shultz hardened his view. He saw earlier than most that Iranian-backed terrorism was America’s great enemy in the region. That was why he detested the Iran-contra arms deal. It was conniving with the people who had killed his friend and adviser, Ames.
Shultz was beloved by many senior Foreign Service officers; he listened to them, took their advice seriously, and protected the State Department’s interest in the fractious interagency debates of the Reagan era. He lacked the shrewd negotiating skills of his successor, James Baker; he was too tough and implacable for that sort of bargaining. He was more a mediator, which was how he had begun his career as labor secretary.
Shultz had the blessing of a long life, and lucidity to the very end of his 100 years. That meant he was the mentor and patron of a generation of diplomats — most especially his protege at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a successor as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Watching him over so many years was an education in the fact that the good guys — the smart, decent people who take on the hard job of making the country work — do sometimes win in the end.