George P. Shultz, who served as secretary of state under Ronald Reagan and held three top positions under Richard Nixon — secretary of labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and secretary of the Treasury — died Saturday. He was 100.
Mr. Shultz died at his home on the campus of Stanford University, the Associated Press reported, citing the Hoover Institution, a think tank where he was a distinguished fellow.
As his holding a quartet of such high-level positions indicates, Mr. Shultz was regarded as a model of managerial dependability: pragmatic, low key, unflappable. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said, “If I could choose one American to whom I would entrust the nation’s fate, it would be George Shultz.” In a 1989 article, The Washington Post lauded Mr. Shultz’s “stolid equanimity” as an antidote to the “Kissinger-Brzezinski-Haig strain of American policy maker.”
Although fundamentally conservative, Mr. Shultz proved a moderating influence in the highly ideological climate of the Reagan presidency. Indeed, some of the greatest turbulence Mr. Shultz faced during his 6½ years as secretary of state emerged within the administration. Three times he told Reagan he was resigning, only to have the president dissuade him.
Joseph Laitin, who served as Mr. Shultz’s press secretary at OMB, once likened him to an elephant. “He puts one foot forward, then gradually shifts weight onto it until he’s sure it’ll hold up, and then puts his next foot forward. And he collects power as he goes along.”
Perhaps the most striking instance of that ability to proceed unhurriedly and prudently and still come out on top was the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved the trading of arms to Iran in return for the release of hostages; in addition, profits from the arms sales were siphoned to Nicaraguan anti-Marxist rebels, the Contras. Although Mr. Shultz was adamantly opposed, the scheme went forward anyway. Clearly, he had lost out in a bureaucratic power struggle with the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency. Just as clearly, that opposition greatly enhanced his standing once the scandal broke, at the end of 1986.
Mr. Shultz had previously demonstrated his integrity during the Watergate scandal. As secretary of the Treasury, he dismissed White House complaints about the Internal Revenue Service auditing Richard Nixon’s tax returns and refused to use the IRS to harass Nixon’s political opponents. “What does that candyass think I sent him over there for?” Nixon groused.
No candyass, George Pratt Shultz was a former college football player and Marine combat veteran. He was born on Dec. 13, 1920, in New York, the only child of Birl E. Shultz, a businessman, and Margaret (Pratt) Shultz, a homemaker. The family moved to Englewood, N.J., when Mr. Shultz was young. He attended Princeton University, where he played basketball as well as football. An enduring, if minor, mystery is whether he had the Princeton mascot, a tiger, tatooed on one of his buttocks. Mr. Shultz’s refusal to comment on the matter led many to conclude that he had.
He enlisted in the Marines upon graduation, in 1942. Mr. Shultz saw action in the Pacific as an artillery officer, rising to the rank of captain. While on leave in Hawaii, he met an Army nurse, Helena Maria O’Brien. The couple married in 1946. Mrs. Shultz died in 1995.
An economics major as an undergraduate, Mr. Shultz earned a doctorate in industrial economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949. He taught there from 1949 to 1957, except for the 1955-56 academic year, which he spent as a senior staff economist on the Council of Economic Advisers. Later he would chair committees and work as a consultant for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
While at MIT, Mr. Shultz had his sole brush with elective office. He ran for the board of a proposed regional school district, which included Stow, where the Shultzes lived. The school proposal was defeated, but Mr. Shultz was elected to the board by a resounding margin.
In 1957, Mr. Shultz accepted a professorship in industrial relations at the University of Chicago School of Business. He became dean in 1962.
Mr. Shultz maintained a Massachusetts connection after leaving MIT. For many years, he owned a farm in Cummington.
During his time at both MIT and Chicago, Mr. Shultz had served as an arbitrator in numerous labor-management disputes. The record he compiled won him the respect of both union and business leaders. Richard Nixon’s naming him secretary of labor in December 1968 was hailed by labor and management alike.
Mr. Shultz spent 18 months in the post. He had to deal with major strikes by East Coast longshoremen, postal workers, and employees at General Electric. His so-called Philadelphia Plan, which set up quotas with the construction trade for minority hires on federal projects, was a landmark in the history of affirmative action. His ordering an investigation of the murder of dissident union leader Joseph Yablonski helped bring down United Mine Workers president Tony Boyle.
Nixon appointed Mr. Shultz first director of the Office of Management and Budget, which replaced the Bureau of the Budget, in June 1970. Two years later, Nixon underscored his reliance on Mr. Shultz, naming him secretary of the Treasury. He served in that post until April 1974, leaving after the second imposition of wage-and-price controls, which he opposed.
Mr. Shultz went to work for the Bechtel Corp., the global construction firm based in San Francisco. He eventually became the company’s president.
After the resignation of Alexander M. Haig Jr., Reagan nominated Mr. Shultz as secretary of state on July 1, 1982. He served in that post for the remainder of Reagan’s presidency.
Mr. Shultz described his steady-as-she-goes philosophy of diplomacy in a 1989 Washington Post interview. “Say there’s a fire. You have to get the fire out. Now at the same time there are various ways you can do it. If you don’t have any strategy you just get the fire out. Now if you have a strategy you say to yourself, ‘Well, all right, I’m going to get this out, but I’m going to do it in such a way that I do it in a manner that is compatible, or at least not incompatible, with my general thrust.’ So what you try to build is the implementation of your strategy by these incremental little things.”
Mr. Shultz’s tenure at State was marked by continuing friction with Congress over the administration’s support of Contra rebels working to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Never an enthusiast of that policy, Mr. Shultz preferred to emphasize the fight against terrorism. He opposed the withdrawal of US forces from Beirut after a terrorist bombing took the lives of 239 Marines in October 1983. He called for a swift response after Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship, in 1985. He supported the bombing of Libya the following April in retaliation for its support of terrorism.
Administration policy on terrorism and Central America intersected in the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1985, CIA director William Casey suggested selling US weapons to Iran to obtain the release of hostages held in Lebanon. Mr. Shultz strenuously opposed the idea. It went forward, however, with some of the payments skimmed off to fund the Contras.
“The story was so bizarre it was almost beyond belief,” Mr. Shultz wrote in his 1993 memoirs, “Turmoil and Triumph.” Yet national security adviser John Poindexter asserted that he never kept any information from Mr. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (who also had opposed the plan) “that they didn’t want withheld.”
Mr. Shultz remembered otherwise. He spent two days detailing to the joint congressional committee investigating Iran-Contra how he and Weinberger had been left in the dark when Poindexter and others went forward with the plan. US Representative Les Aspin, Democrat of Wisconsin, said Mr. Shultz gave “the most extraordinary testimony I’ve heard in 17 years in Congress.”
Mr. Shultz’s most important work at the State Department concerned the Soviet Union. Despite such events as the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, he helped shepherd in the winding down of the Cold War. He participated in summit meetings between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva (1985); Reykjavik (1986); Washington (1987), where the intermediate nuclear-forces treaty was signed; and Moscow (1988).
Reagan awarded Mr. Shultz the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1989.
Upon leaving the State Department, Mr. Shultz returned to the San Francisco Bay area. He taught at Stanford University, was a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution, and in 1997 married San Francisco’s chief of protocol, Charlotte Mailliard Swig. “I was used to a busy schedule as secretary of state, but this is quite different,” a bemused Mr. Shultz told The San Francisco Chronicle of the 30-or-so parties thrown in the couple’s honor before and after the wedding.
Mr. Shultz remained an active, elder-statesman presence, publishing op-ed articles, making plain in interviews his disapproval of Donald Trump, both as candidate and president, and writing or co-writing several books in his 90s. “A Hinge of History,” written with James Timbie, appeared just a few weeks before his 100th birthday.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.