After the Nixon years, Shultz moved into the corporate world, becoming an executive at the Bechtel Group, and returned to the academic world, at Stanford University. When Reagan was elected, he installed Alexander Haig as secretary of State, but after a dicey first year, the overreaching Haig left office in July 1982 and Reagan immediately selected Shultz to replace him.
According to H.W. Brands’ “Reagan: The Life,” the president was unwilling to announce Haig’s departure until he had his replacement lined up. Brands wrote that when Reagan reached out to him, Shultz realized he needed to answer immediately. “Mr. President, I’m on board,” he said.
“He has the potential to be one of the greatest secretaries of State of all times,” Illinois Sen. Charles Percy said as Shultz was confirmed 97-0. From the outset, Shultz’s professionalism put the State Department on different footing, and he gave Reagan loyal support.
“Shultz, unlike Haig was courteous and patient,” Diggins wrote in his 2007 book, “the right qualities for a diplomat who prefers negotiation to escalation.”
Shultz needed those qualities when it came to dealing with a fellow member of Reagan’s Cabinet, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, a confrontational fellow veteran of the Nixon administration and Bechtel. The Beltway was rife with talk of discord. In December 1984, The New York Times reported the two “are reported at odds on virtually all foreign policy issues, often to the frustration and concern of the White House.” It didn’t help matters that on some issues, Shultz was the more hawkish and on others, Weinberger was. Sometimes the issues over which they fought seemed trivial, such as the question of selling computers to Romania.
Shultz, the Times wrote, “is by nature and training a professor, mediator and private man. He prefers conciliation to confrontation. Often impassive — a colleague described him as ‘sphinxlike’ — Shultz is a man of enormous self-assurance.” The same article noted: “He appears content to stay out of the news.”
His 6½ years atop the State Department left him to deal with situations from the Caribbean to China, but two events stood out. The low point was the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal, which involved the selling of weapons to Iran to fund guerrillas in Nicaragua, neither of which was authorized by Congress. Reagan’s efforts to handle the situation seemed to only make matters worse, and Shultz found himself as one of the few voices in the administration pushing to get the administration back on course. “Reagan thought Shultz was blowing things out of proportion,” according to “Reagan: The Life.”
There were calls for Shultz to resign, but, he would later write, “No successor could function in this job, I felt, unless the terrible situation was put right.” So, Shultz remained, and some of the rogue-policymaking apparatus would end up back in his hands. The scandal would make a household name of Oliver North and bring down a number of leading Washington figures, including Weinberger.
Ultimately, Shultz’s greatest influence with Reagan would come on the subject of arms control. In a March 1983 memo, Shultz listed multiple areas in which he thought talks could lead to better U.S.-Soviet relations, including arms control. This impetus gained steam when Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union, which Reagan had dubbed the “evil empire” at one point.
“It always seemed to me Gorbachev was a genuine realist,” Shultz wrote in his 2016 book, “Learning from Experience,” noting that Gorbachev had come up through the ranks, unlike previous Soviet leaders.
When Shultz first met Gorbachev, Reagan gave Shultz a chance to offer Gorbachev an opportunity to shake up the status quo of the Cold War. According to Brands’ book, Shultz said: “President Reagan told me to look you squarely in the eyes and tell you: ‘Ronald Reagan believes this is a very special moment in the history of mankind.'”
What followed were multiple summits with Gorbachev. They ultimately led to a sharp reduction in nuclear weapons and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan; these occurred at the same time Gorbachev was pursuing a not-unrelated course of liberalization within the Soviet Union — as well as indicating to the Warsaw Pact states that they were on their own. In 1989, less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down. It was a heady time, marking the end of a Cold War that had lasted decades and scarred many.
In the final moments of Reagan’s presidency, Shultz received the Presidential Medal of Freedom: “For years of public service and his vital part in inaugurating a new era of hope in foreign policy, his countrymen honor him.’’
For the next decades, Shultz would speak on many international issues behind the scenes and serve as an informal adviser, particularly to George W. Bush. He would be in demand as a speaker and writer, someone who could be counted on to offer cogent analysis of world crises. Whenever he stopped speaking for more than a few minutes, it seemed like someone would present him with an award or honorary degree.
Shultz, who also returned to Bechtel and to Stanford, was frank about his fears for the world. “For centuries, we somehow managed to separate war from religion, and now it’s back,” he told the Times of Israel in February 2016. “War with a religious base is much more dangerous, because it has a capacity to spread, which it’s doing.”
Shultz also spoke out on domestic issues, touting, for instance, the legalization of recreational drugs and the benefits of driving a Prius. He urged that climate change be dealt with.
“I’ve always tried to live in the future,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in 2011, “and think about things and how to make things better. If you have great-grandchildren around, and their pictures are looking at you, well, that’s the future.”
And Shultz — who had an opinion article published in The Washington Post at the time of his 100th birthday — never lost his ability to impress others with his ideas.
“I was in a meeting with him a week or so ago,” Perry said on Sunday, “where he was the sharpest and most provocative person in the room.”
Bryan Bender contributed to this report.