That was quintessentially George. He loved his country and loved serving it — whether on the battlefields of World War II or the gilded rooms of diplomacy in foreign capitals around the world.
George will be remembered as one of the most influential secretaries of state in our history. He was President Ronald Reagan’s most trusted adviser as the Cold War was drawing to a close. His deft touch in reading and encouraging Reagan’s instincts, first to challenge the Soviet Union, and then to find common ground through diplomacy, served the president and the country well.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” in Berlin. And: “What part of zero do you not understand,” in proceeding with the deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe when the Soviet Union refused to remove their intermediate-range forces. These words were classic Reagan, but it was George who translated those instincts into policy wins. His diplomatic skills were on display most memorably in negotiating a landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons for the first time in history. Reagan — with George by his side — laid the foundation for the peaceful end of the Cold War.
As secretary, he greatly influenced policy in the Middle East, even though the bombing of the Marines in Lebanon in 1983 haunted him, personally, throughout his life. And just a few years after the establishment of relations with the People’s Republic of China, many credit George with laying down a path for regular and successful diplomacy with Beijing on everything from trade to human rights. Diplomats knew him as a good listener and a practical man. His favorite tactic was to say to his counterpart, “You write down what worries you and I will do the same, and then we will work our way down the list.” And yet, he never lost sight of the centrality of freedom to the human experience and to human dignity. His integrity was unquestioned by friend and foe alike.
Even if secretary of state was his “best job” in the Cabinet, he will also be remembered for his work as treasury secretary and director of the Office of Management and Budget where his belief in the power of markets made him a force with two presidents. Yet, when one spent just a little time with George, he would turn to a set of achievements that were core to him. He was immensely proud of his work in civil rights and equal opportunity — as secretary of labor for Richard Nixon.
George remained seized with questions of equality at home, particularly in education. That concern led him to champion K-12 school reform and parental choice and — with his wife, Charlotte — to single-handedly save an inner-city school in Palo Alto, Calif., that needed funding to survive. Too few people knew that side of George. He just went about that work. He believed deeply that the United States could lead with moral authority abroad only if it was true to its values at home.
In 100 well-lived years, George made an impact in corporate, academic and governmental institutions. He did so by deed but also by imparting lessons that we could all apply when we were called to lead. “Be sure to garden,” he would say, insisting that relationships — particularly with allies — were like flowers in a garden and needed constant tending.
“Never point your weapon unless you intend to fire it,” he would say, recalling what his master sergeant had said to the young Marine. That was an admonition to be careful with threats and “red-lines” that you could not or would not enforce.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” a phrase that he proudly wore on his favorite tie, and a message that we need desperately to remember in our challenged and battered country today.
George never stopped learning. There was always another intellectual frontier to cross, and so after government, he would become consumed with the challenges of climate change, learning the science and technology and pairing that knowledge with his grasp of political and economic realities. At Hoover, we called him the “great convener.” There was always a working group or task force or seminar that brought people together to learn and share ideas.
With his colleagues, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sidney Drell, George renewed his commitment, first expressed in the Reagan administration, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Like so much that he touched, it was a big idea — not achievable in the short term but still worth pursuing. In large ways and small, George shaped and changed the world, both with policy breakthroughs of his own and by inspiring others to do their part in improving the human condition.
Now, we will have to carry on the work that he challenged us to do: to love freedom, to provide opportunity for all and to never lose a thirst for learning. We will miss him. Yet, we could not have asked for more than to have shared in his passionate embrace of life’s joys and challenges. George Shultz ran his race and finished strong until the very end. For that we should be grateful, because even as we mourn his passing, we are all so much better for having been a part of the consequential life that he lived.