Menus Subscribe Search

George Shultz Sees a Path Through Gloom and Doom

• September 12, 2012 • 10:05 AM

Whether discussing a flat-broke California or a world awash in nuclear weapons, the former secretary of state remains an optimist.

George P. Shultz

George P. Shultz, a former secretary of state and corporate CEO, is currently a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Speaking from his limo as it crossed San Francisco last month, George Shultz was optimistic, as usual, and laconic, as always, even if the subjects—California’s looming bankruptcy and nuclear war—bear their share of gloom and doom.

At 92, Shultz, a former U.S. secretary of state as well as past president of the worldwide construction behemoth Bechtel, always brings invaluable experience to such critical topics. That’s one reason he was asked to join the Think Long Committee—he’s also the one who came up with the name—to rescue California from itself.

While he credits Think Long as “a very good committee,” Shultz cautions that so far nothing has happened with the group’s recommendations; “We hope something will.”

“Our report,” he says of Think Long’s valedictory document, “A Blueprint to Renew California: Report and Recommendations,” “has in it a very important tax proposal, which is not on the ballot, but I think is far better than anything on the ballot.” There are two tax initiatives on California’s November ballot, one a sort of low bid from Gov. Jerry Brown (Proposition 30), and a “much longer one” from Molly Munger that raises taxes in large part to support education (Proposition 38). “But we hope they’ll be defeated, and the one that we propose can come forward.”

More of a Simpson-Bowles effort? Striking a balance between tax increases and expenditure cuts?

“That’s right.”

Shultz agreed that his time at the private experience with Bechtel was “helpful” in contributing to Think Long’s wide-ranging, cloistered meetings, but also pointed to his stints serving on reform efforts. “I did serve as chairman of an economic advisory committee when Pete Wilson was governor, and for Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was governor. So I’d learned something about California.”

The Reagan-era arms negotiator comes down as the same clipped communicator in his gruff words on nuclear disarmament, an issue that so far has gained zero traction in the current presidential campaign.

Shultz is not letting that stop him; he is a honcho in a “partnership,” the Nuclear Security Project, among four well-known Cold Warriors joined together to pursue worldwide elimination of these weapons. He and former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, former Clinton administration Defense Secretary William Perry, and the ultimate practitioner of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger, signed four epochal Wall Street Journal op-eds. Shultz drafted the first paper that led to their final agreement, then took his chances and gave his draft to Kissinger when they were together in the same “camp” (Mandalay) at the Bohemian Grove.

“Henry is a reasonable guy,” Shultz insists. And the first op-ed signed by all four set forth a series of careful steps that lead to their vision of “Getting to Zero” on the future presence of nuclear arms everywhere in the world. Indeed, those three purposive words are the only emotive touch in the measured language of their appeal, so much in keeping with Shultz’s own quietude.

So, a bit out of the blue, I asked him if that traces back to his Quaker father? I heard him chortle. “Well, maybe. Quakers believe in being quiet. Don’t say anything unless you have something to say.”

(You might have heard that from him, I suggested, back in your hometown of Englewood, N.J.? Still chortling. “Interesting you bring it up because I never thought of it that way, but maybe there’s something to your point.”)

Quakers are also said to be enterprising, which is how Shultz describes their latest steps toward the vision of banishing nuclear weapons. “[The global community] recently had two conferences—one in Washington, D.C., one in Seoul, Korea—on what we call a nuclear enterprise, on getting control of fissile materials. That is a very important step. Yes, the United States and Russia have further work to do, reducing our arsenals, but it’s very important that this be seen as an enterprise involving all other countries because most of the things that need to be worked on … have broad applicability.”

But in Washington, only two members of Congress of either party showed up at a film screening the Nuclear Security Project hosted in Washington for members of Congress in 2011. And while President Obama has taken steps toward a limit of 1,550 U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (down from today’s 1,737) and mentioned, sotto voce, to Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev that missile talks could resume “after my election,” the candidate from Shultz’s own GOP has been mum.

“Governor Romney hasn’t spoken out on these subjects,” Shultz admits. “I hope that he will recognize that the United States will be much better off without nuclear weapons in the world. Obviously the campaign is preoccupied with other issues.”

Does that bother him?

“No, it doesn’t. I just assume that it’s best to be quiet on the subject because we don’t want it to be injected into a kind of partisan atmosphere. We have kept the enterprise on a nonpartisan basis, and that is the right place to keep it.” Then there’s Iran, a perfect example of what the partnership’s proposals address in seeking to negotiate—possibly control and limit—nuclear proliferation.

“I agree with the general view that it will a very bad thing for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, and we should be doing everything we can to see that they don’t get one.” Pause. “But — I — must — say …” His limo is stopping, to let him off. “I’m not impressed with the negotiating … at what has happened in the negotiations. There are other ways of going about it. But time is short.”

What would he have done differently?

Another careful pause. “If you are going to have negotiations,” he says succinctly, “negotiate about all the things you’re interested in. Not just one thing.”

Brock Brower
Longtime journalist Brock Brower is a Rhodes scholar and former professor at Dartmouth and Princeton. He is the author of several books, including the 1971 cult classic The Late Great Creature, and has contributed to publications from Life to Esquire.

More From Brock Brower

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.