Dr. Shultz’s prodigious inside knowledge of the U.S. government was rivaled by few figures in recent memory, and his soft-spoken, cerebral manner obscured his strong conservative views about the wisdom of keeping spending under control, limiting government regulation and vigorously confronting terrorists.
He was famously a pragmatist on some of the consequential issues he faced while in power. As President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, Dr. Shultz played a critical role in the dramatic easing of tensions between the United States and Soviet Union that took place during the late 1980s.
Unlike some of his colleagues in the administration, Dr. Shultz thought that Mikhail Gorbachev represented a departure from previous Soviet leaders and pressed Reagan, against bureaucratic and political obstacles, to pursue a more constructive relationship with the United States’ longtime Cold War adversary.
As President Richard M. Nixon’s top economic adviser in the preceding decade, Dr. Shultz helped implement wage and price controls, even though he opposed the policy in private, and he was involved in the abandonment of the Bretton Woods agreement that had governed currency fluctuations since the end of World War II.
In two decades of government service, Dr. Shultz acquired a reputation for good judgment and integrity, advising Nixon to tell all about his role in the Watergate scandal and confronting Reagan over his aides’ unwillingness to be truthful about the events known as the Iran-contra affair. But some of his colleagues thought he chose not to know the details of the illegal arms sales to Tehran and using the proceeds to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, in part to protect his own reputation.
At the Hoover Institution, Dr. Shultz played a behind-the-scenes role in national Republican politics. In April 1998, he arranged for a number of conservative intellectuals, including then-Stanford provost Condoleezza Rice, to meet with Texas Gov. George W. Bush as he prepared to run for the White House. He was also a prominent supporter of and adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
George Pratt Shultz was born in Manhattan on Dec. 13, 1920. An only child, he was raised in Englewood, N.J., and attended the private Loomis School in Windsor, Conn. His father, Birl, was dean of the Educational Institute of the New York Stock Exchange, a training school for employees of the exchange.
He graduated from Princeton University in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and played on the varsity basketball and football teams. After service in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, he received a doctorate in industrial economics in 1949 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (He reportedly had a tattoo of a tiger, the Princeton mascot, on his bottom, although he steadfastly refused to confirm it.)
In 1946, he married Helena O’Brien, and they had three daughters and two sons. In 1997, two years after the death of his first wife, he married Charlotte Mailliard Swig, the longtime chief of protocol for the city of San Francisco. In addition to his wife, survivors include five children; eleven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Dr. Shultz specialized initially in issues of labor relations and employment. He held a succession of academic posts at MIT and the University of Chicago, where he became dean of Graduate School of Business in 1962. He interrupted his university career in 1955 for the first of many government posts, working for President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a senior staff economist on the Council of Economic Advisers.
Dr. Shultz was named labor secretary in 1968 by the newly elected President Nixon, and his experience as a mediator came in handy as he was called upon to deal with several high-profile strikes. He also helped establish one of the federal government’s first affirmative action programs, the so-called Philadelphia Plan, which set goals for minority employment at federally subsidized construction sites.
After 18 months, Nixon appointed Dr. Shultz the first director of a new Office of Management and Budget, which made him the president’s right-hand man on economic matters. He changed posts again in May 1972, when Nixon named him treasury secretary, and he became the administration’s point person on international efforts to eliminate fixed exchange rates for currencies.
Dr. Shultz emerged unscathed from the Watergate scandal that enveloped the administration near the end of his tenure. He refused to allow the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Nixon’s political enemies, and Nixon referred to him as a “candy-ass” in one of his taped White House conversations. Nixon later recommended that President Reagan not appoint Dr. Shultz as secretary of state, saying that he did not have the “depth of understanding” necessary for the job.
Dr. Shultz resigned the Treasury post in 1974 to become president of Bechtel Corp., the giant multinational construction company headquartered in San Francisco.
Although Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. was Reagan’s first secretary of state, the president turned to Dr. Shultz in 1982 after becoming exasperated over Haig’s monumental ego and repeated clashes with the White House staff. Haig quit after little more than a year on the job.
It was Dr. Shultz’s fourth Cabinet-level appointment; the only other person to receive that many was Elliot L. Richardson, who headed the departments of Commerce, Defense, Justice and Health, Education and Welfare.
Dr. Shultz served as secretary for 6 1/2 years, until the end of the Reagan presidency, more than any other post-World War II secretary of state except Dean Rusk. His tenure included many remarkable events, including war in Lebanon, the invasion of Grenada, the democratic transition in the Philippines and what many regard as his signal achievement — the transformation of relations with the Soviet Union and the ushering in of the end of the Cold War.
Over the course of his tenure at Foggy Bottom, Dr. Shultz clashed repeatedly with other key Reagan advisers, including CIA director William Casey and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, his onetime deputy at OMB. But he was well liked by the Foreign Service and will be remembered as one of the few secretaries of state who effectively used the department’s career bureaucracy to advance his objectives.
From the beginning, Dr. Shultz was consumed with managing relations with the Soviet Union and handling Reagan’s seemingly ambivalent posture, which alternated between harsh rhetoric about an “evil empire” and interest in improving relations if possible.
After he took over as secretary of state in 1982, Dr. Shultz was a lonely voice inside the administration, trying to make the case that a more constructive relationship with the Soviets was desirable and possible.
Dr. Shultz encouraged Reagan’s more hopeful side. In February 1983, against the advice of the national security adviser, William Clark, Dr. Shultz arranged for a secret White House meeting between Reagan and veteran Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Reagan pressed the Soviet diplomat on human rights but also expressed a willingness to be constructive. It was the first time Reagan engaged in personal diplomacy with a Soviet official.
The meeting was an initial step in Dr. Shultz’s persistent campaign to transform U.S.-Soviet relations through concrete steps: arms control pacts, human rights improvements and high-profile summits between Reagan and Gorbachev.
At a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev nearly came to agreement on a plan to eliminate nuclear weapons within 10 years, but Reagan refused to accept Gorbachev’s limits on his plan to develop a space-based system to defend against a nuclear attack.
A year later, Dr. Shultz’s patient, plodding approach resulted in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, which eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons. A year after that, the two countries signed an accord for the Soviets to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and Reagan visited Red Square in Moscow. With Dr. Shultz’s support, Reagan resisted the contentions of his most conservative supporters that he was being duped by Gorbachev.
“As a former labor mediator and domestic affairs cabinet member accustomed to temporary ups and downs, Shultz was undeterred by the many obstacles, disappointments and setbacks along the way,” journalist Don Oberdorfer wrote in “The Turn,” his account of the change in relations between the United States and Soviet Union. “Like the tortoise in the race with the hare, he just kept coming, moving slowly but relentlessly toward his goal.”
Dr. Shultz’s generally warm relationship with Reagan was strained by another big issue of his tenure: the political crisis in the Philippines in 1985.
After opposition leader Corazon Aquino appeared to have defeated 20-year President Ferdinand Marcos, a longtime ally of the United States, in an election marked by widespread fraud on the government side, Marcos tried to declare victory.
Dr. Shultz and other senior officials at the State Department argued that it was time for the United States to break with Marcos. Reagan grudgingly followed Dr. Shultz’s advice that he threaten Marcos with the loss of military aid and urge him to give up power, according to an account by historian James Mann.
Marcos eventually agreed to step down. Aquino became president, and Marcos lived out his years in exile in Hawaii. “With American support, and as a result of Shultz’s remarkable tenacity, the Philippines was transformed from dictatorship to democracy,” Mann wrote in “Rise of the Vulcans.”
During his time as secretary of state, which coincided with several high-profile terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, Dr. Shultz was an early and outspoken advocate of aggressive anti-terrorism measures. With his support, Reagan took action against terrorists and the states that sponsored them, including the bombing of Libya in 1986 after it was found complicit in the bombing of a Berlin disco in which two American servicemen died.
As part of his very active diplomacy in the Middle East, Dr. Shultz expended considerable energy trying to persuade Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat to abandon terrorism against Israel.
The effort bore fruit near the end of the Reagan administration, when Arafat recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. The next day, Reagan ended a 13-year ban on U.S. talks with the PLO, although it would be five more years before secret negotiations between Israel and the PLO led to the Oslo accords during the Clinton administration.
The proper approach to states that sponsor terrorism was an issue that figured prominently in the Iran-contra affair, which broke open in 1986 and threatened to destroy the Reagan presidency.
In the early part of Reagan’s second term, the administration launched a clandestine program to supply weapons to Iran in violation of its purported policy of banning arms sales to countries that support terrorism. Some of the proceeds were then diverted to support forces fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, a violation of congressional restrictions on such aid.
By Dr. Shultz’s account, he argued vigorously in private against the arms sales to Tehran, which were designed to gain Iran’s help in freeing U.S. hostages in Lebanon. But other officials in the government thought that Dr. Shultz and Weinberger, the defense secretary, who also was against the initiative, were ineffective and self-serving in their opposition.
“Secretary Shultz and Secretary Weinberg in particular distanced themselves from the march of events,” concluded the board that reviewed the Reagan administration’s handling of the matter. “Secretary Shultz specifically requested to be informed only as necessary to perform his job.”
Rather than giving the initiative their full support or fighting hard to get the president to abandon it, “they simply distanced themselves from the program,” wrote the board, chaired by former senator John Tower (R-Tex.).
Once the matter became public, however, Dr. Shultz worked hard to have the administration come clean about what had happened, according to many accounts. He was influenced by his experience in the Nixon administration, in which he saw the presidency destroyed by the Watergate coverup.
In his own memoirs, Dr. Shultz wrote of his efforts to convince Reagan that information he was receiving from the CIA and White House staff was riddled with errors and falsehoods.
“For nearly an hour I went at it with the president,” Dr. Shultz wrote of one meeting in the White House family quarters. “We argued back and forth, hot and heavy. I never thought I would talk to a president of the United States in such a direct and challenging way.”
In 1989, Mr. Reagan awarded Dr. Shultz the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
In his later years, Dr. Shultz was regarded as a grandee of the GOP establishment. He sat on many boards, most controversially Theranos, a Silicon Valley-based medical device firm run by Elizabeth Holmes, a charismatic entrepreneur now awaiting trial for fraud.
Through Dr. Shultz’s connections, Holmes drafted former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, secretary of defense William Perry and Marine Gen. Jim Mattis to her board.
Dr. Schultz’s grandson Tyler, a Stanford graduate who worked at Theranos, was a key whistleblower against Holmes and her company. But according to Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s acclaimed book about Theranos, “Bad Blood,” the elder Shultz remained committed to the firm in the face of mounting evidence of fraud and tried to pressure his grandson into silence.
His continued support of Holmes fractured the relationship, although Dr. Shultz later issued a statement to the ABC News program “Nightline” in 2019, a year after the company was dissolved amid legal scrutiny. He wrote that his grandson “did not shrink from what he saw as his responsibility to the truth and patient safety, even when he felt personally threatened and believed that I had placed allegiance to the company over allegiance to higher values and our family.”
He added: “I have learned — from my experiences beginning in World War II, in private industry, and in the various public service positions I have been privileged to fill — that the people in the field are closest to the issues and are the best sources of wisdom whenever a problem arises.”