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Luke Griffith and Anthony Eames, our two inaugural Visiting Reagan Fellows, interviewed George Shultz just days before his death, and were likely the last to interview him.

On Sec. Shultz’ formative years:

Eames: “He spoke about how formative being a marine was to the rest of his career. What was clear to me was the significance of that experience to how he conducted himself in every interaction. He recounted an anecdote of being in the former Soviet Union during the Nixon administration, and visiting a cemetery in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) with a memorial to soldiers who perished in World War II.  Secretary Shultz was so moved by the breadth of sacrifice that he did his most sincere and genuine Marine Corps salute to the Soviet war dead.  And this seemingly small act…this was really important to building trust between the US and the Soviets.”

On his role in nuclear armament drawdown:

Griffith: “Secretary Shultz argued the deployment of Euromissiles (deployed in November 1983 as part of defense initiatives to deter the Soviet threat) represented a turning point in the Cold War. This is not something frequently seen in history books as the key moment.  This was not just self-praise—a lot of other administration civil servants and lower-ranking officials have made the same point to me.”

Eames: “In the Reagan White House, he [Shultz] recognized that Reagan had always been for engagement. So, he supported pursuit of engagement. It was always his belief that progress mattered more than who got the credit.”

On ego and public service:

Griffith: “[Sec. Shultz’] humility really shined through. I have interviewed a variety of former policymakers, and that is not always the case. He was one of the most important policy makers in the 20th century. And his opening line was not to take credit, but to give it all to his boss, President Reagan. And lots of praise for people who worked for him. [I] was very struck by how humble he was.”

Eames: “He really did put service first. He was one of few people in US history to serve in four different cabinet positions. His game wasn’t politics—it was public service. And so often those two are intertwined, but he was first and foremost a public servant, he thought of that role and responsibility as extending not only to official capacities, but more broadly. Even after his time in government service he still carried the public servant mindset with him in his intervening and post-administration chapters. He was always trying to push the conversation about American responsibility and power both at home and abroad in a positive and productive direction. He was tireless in that effort. “

On Shultz as a manager:

Eames: “Shultz was a manager without equal: he knew how to manage up and down. He had a fundamental understanding of people he was working with or people working for him. There were times when he didn’t heed advice of advisors, but he always empowered people working for him, and these ‘simple’ things may not seem so significant, but really are when you are conducting such high-stakes diplomacy.”

On generosity:

Griffith: “[Shultz] was very generous with his time even during the last day of his life. He was 100— he did not need to be spending his time doing these interviews. But he was ready and excited to help young scholars who were studying his life work and achievements.”

Eames: “Interviewing him in the last week of his life, when you are 100 years old your seconds, minutes and hours are precious. For him to take the time to interview with a perfect stranger and to be so generous with his time and with his thoughts really speaks to how much he bought into his responsibility of making the United States a better place and seeing through a lot of the work that he started on even 70 years ago.”

On the personal impact:

Eames: “When I interviewed him, it felt consequential in the moment, and feels even more so now, because of that life-long commitment be it in government or outside government…Historians so rarely get to interview their subjects, always trying to recreate events—what was the psychology of this person, what was the personality of this person? Personality really determines how you interpret an interaction, so for me getting a sense of his personality and being able to project it backward into these meetings he had with Chairman Gorbachev, President Reagan, etc., you can feel how he was in the room and get a sense of how he worked his presence in the room. The word gravitas is probably overused when talking about Secretaries of State, but it really does apply to him in a unique way.”

 

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