George Shultz in 2017 at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco. (Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons

When he died, at the age of 100, in 2021, George P. Shultz was widely hailed as a consummate pragmatist who represented a type of sober conservatism that has been almost entirely eradicated in the modern Republican Party. A charter member of the foreign policy establishment, he occupied four cabinet positions, including secretary of labor and secretary of state, in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In those posts, he earned his reputation for statesmanship by espousing enlightened policies on issues like civil rights and playing a key role in ending the Cold War. His death was taken as the symbolic passing of a bygone style of judicious and sane conservative governance that predominated in Republican administrations before Donald Trump took office. 

In the Nation’s Service: The Life and Times of George P. Shultz by Philip Taubman Stanford University Press, 449 pp.

But did Republican administrations ever follow Shultz’s principled brand of politics—or, in fact, did Shultz himself? Philip Taubman’s new biography of Shultz, In the Nation’s Service, offers a more complicated assessment of the well-known government official and of the modern history of the GOP. Taubman, a former reporter at The New York Times, first encountered Shultz when he was Reagan’s secretary of state. Decades later, Shultz asked Taubman if he would like to write his biography and promised exclusive access to his papers, which were housed in a sealed archive at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Taubman has extensively drawn on them to show that Shultz had real accomplishments but failed to stand up for his principles against unscrupulous conservative operators at key moments during the Nixon and Reagan presidencies. His story hints toward the GOP’s long tradition of struggling—and often failing—to check the callous self-interest and viciousness that came to define the Trump White House. 

Taubman traces Shultz’s innate conservatism back to his father, a lifelong Republican who worked on Wall Street and emphasized the importance of social and professional status. As a teenager, Shultz viewed FDR’s administration with misgivings, recalling that he felt he was “seeing this big intrusion and hoping it would work and realizing it didn’t work very well.” After serving in the Marines in the Pacific theater during World War II, Shultz entered graduate studies at MIT, studying economics and industrial relations. Never an impassioned ideologue, Shultz was less interested in economic theory than in public policy issues. He landed his first Washington job in 1955, when Arthur F. Burns, who became head of the Federal Reserve under Nixon, hired him as a senior staff economist on the Council of Economic Advisers. Shultz was impressed by Burns’s professional and apolitical stance as chairman of the advisory group. “It was this approach to government service, more than anything else, that became Shultz’s takeaway from his first episode in Washington,” Taubman writes.

George Shultz’s selective memory throughout the Iran-Contra affair echoed Richard Nixon’s warning in 1982 that Shultz had “a wonderful ability to, when things look iffy or are going wrong, contend he never heard about the issue and was never briefed and was not a part.”

Shultz became a national figure when he was appointed dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business at the age of 41. His encounters at Chicago with the likes of Milton Friedman and George Stigler fortified his faith in free markets and opposition to government regulation, but he was also careful to tend to his ties to Washington, serving as chair of a task force of the U.S. Employment Service during the JFK administration and directing a government task force on African American unemployment during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Johnson told Shultz, “George, if you have a good idea, and it’s your idea, it’s not going to go very far. But if it becomes my idea, it just might go somewhere. Do I make myself clear?” He did. According to Taubman, Shultz learned the “benefit of subsuming his own ego in service to a higher goal and higher-ranking officials, a self-effacing attitude that would reappear repeatedly as he attained higher office.” As he worked on jobs creation in the Johnson administration, Shultz also was active at Chicago, where he established one of the first minority scholarship programs at an American business school. 

Shultz’s work caught the eye of Nixon, who appointed him secretary of labor in 1968. In his new post, Shultz continued to champion civil rights, but always from behind the scenes. “The progressive minority employment and school integration agendas he supported,” Taubman writes, “seem driven more by his sense of fair play and adherence to the law than a burning desire to protect and enhance the rights of minority groups.” One of his most notable stands was his promotion of Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan, which created a federal affirmative action program. Shultz was critical to ensuring that the plan was approved by Congress, including defending it at a White House news conference in 1969. Following the vote, Republican Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, the minority leader, handed Shultz the tally, which he proudly displayed all his life. 

But Nixon and his advisers were often vexed by what they viewed as Shultz’s pusillanimity about wading into the political fray to target Democrats. As treasury secretary, Shultz tried to fend off the demands of Nixon, H. R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman to wield the IRS as a weapon against their adversaries. Shultz successfully defied White House Counsel John W. Dean III’s demand that he order the IRS to “pursue a list of several hundred George McGovern staff members and campaign contributors.” Shultz had the list buried in an IRS safe. He also defended the IRS when Nixon’s tax return came up for a random audit. 

But he acquiesced to Nixon’s vindictive score-settling when the White House pressured the IRS to investigate Lawrence O’Brien, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Watergate itself began when burglars broke into the DNC headquarters in 1972, where they hoped to replace wiretapping devices. Two months after the bungled burglary, Nixon leaned on Shultz to target O’Brien for tax evasion and fraud. On White House tapes, Nixon fulminated to Haldeman and Ehrlichman, “If you could dirty up O’Brien now I think that might be a lot better than waiting until later.” Shultz updated the White House in August on the investigation, noting that O’Brien appeared to be clean. Taubman recounts that when he confronted Shultz in 2017 about his role in the O’Brien investigation, he “seemed stricken … It was clearly not a topic he relished discussing.” In the end, Shultz remained loyal to Nixon, resigning only in May 1974, three months before the end of his sordid administration. 

In 1982, two years into Reagan’s first term, the president tapped Shultz for secretary of state. Shultz’s reputation as a Republican moderate preceded him, prompting a cabal on the right to seek to undermine him from the outset. They saw Shultz as a stalking horse for a perfidious Republican establishment that supported easing Cold War tensions with Moscow. For the right, any talks with the Kremlin, however innocuous, were tantamount to appeasement. According to Taubman, 

For a man who had witnessed at close hand the scheming of Nixon aides and the disintegration of a presidency, Shultz seemed surprisingly flummoxed by the chaotic foreign political operations of the Reagan administration. He looked outmatched by his opponents and unable to count on decisive support from the president in policy debates.

When Reagan embraced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983—the infamous “Star Wars” nuclear warhead interception system—Shultz only issued the mildest of demurs. He had what Taubman calls an “ingrained instinct” to fall into line and to remain loyal to his superiors and colleagues despite any deep policy disagreements. 

Shultz’s lowest moment, however, was the Iran-Contra affair. Taubman writes that Shultz is blameworthy for his “failure to stop the arms-for-hostage dealing at several critical moments when he heard about pieces of it, objected to it but stopped short of forcefully intervening.” Shultz managed to cover up his culpability—“he barely escaped indictment by [Independent Counsel] Lawrence Walsh for obstruction of justice,” writes Taubman—despite his deputy Elliott Abrams’s ouster as a principal player in the illegal scheme. Taubman notes that Shultz’s public denials about knowledge of the scheme do not conform with the detailed notes by his executive assistant Charles Hill. Shultz’s selective memory throughout the episode, Taubman writes, echoed Nixon’s warning in 1982 that Shultz had “a wonderful ability to, when things look iffy or are going wrong, he’ll contend he never heard about the issue and was never briefed and was not a part.” Nixon, a canny judge of character, and himself an expert at trying to dodge responsibility for illegal actions, had Shultz’s number.

It was U.S.-Soviet relations that allowed Shultz to make his mark and Reagan to rescue his presidency after the Iran-Contra affair came to light. Taubman’s most intriguing discovery in Shultz’s archive was a voluminous diary kept by his shrewd executive assistant, Raymond G. H. Seitz, who chronicled the vicious power struggle that took place between his boss and Reagan’s coterie of conservative foreign policy advisers, including Caspar Weinberger, William Clark, and William Casey. These anticommunist ogres, who headed the Defense Department, National Security Council, and CIA, respectively, were terrified that Reagan might show even a hint of flexibility toward the Kremlin. By patiently forging close ties with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Shultz was able to outlast the other men and leave a historic imprint on U.S.-Soviet relations.

For all his anticommunist rhetoric, Reagan himself was alarmed about the possibility of nuclear war and repeatedly sought to contact Soviet leaders, starting with Leonid Brezhnev. It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union that real change became possible. With the backing of Nancy Reagan, who detested the ideologues surrounding her husband, Shultz successfully encouraged the president to negotiate with Gorbachev and conclude sweeping arms control agreements in 1988. 

It was the high-water mark of Shultz’s career. He went on to champion George W. Bush and to support the Iraq War, which he viewed as spreading American values in the Middle East. He told Daniel Henninger of The Wall Street Journal in 2006, “I don’t know how you define ‘neoconservatism,’ but I think it’s associated with trying to spread open political systems and democracy.” In fact, it represented the triumph of the hawks whom Shultz had battled during the Reagan administration. 

The Theranos scandal was Shultz’s final ignoble episode. He publicly backed CEO Elizabeth Holmes over his own grandson, Tyler, who worked at the company and blew the whistle on its bogus procedures. Taubman suggests that for Shultz, “personal financial gain was likely a motive,” in addition to his deference to authority. It was his loyalty to Nixon during Watergate and capitulation to Reagan during Iran-Contra all over again. 

Reagan’s coterie of conservative foreign policy advisers were terrified that Reagan might show even a hint of flexibility toward the Kremlin. By patiently forging close ties with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Shultz was able to outlast the other men and leave a historic imprint on U.S.-Soviet relations. 

In the Republican wars over domestic and foreign policy, Shultz was the good soldier. A sensible, responsible, and prudent official, he compiled a record of worthy accomplishments. But the contortions he had to perform during his government service to appease movement conservatives illuminate the abiding nature of public service in Republican administrations. They indicate that even reasonably balanced, rational, and public-spirited appointees often find themselves, after a period of resistance, caving to their more retrograde colleagues and superiors out of some combination of self-interest and belief that living to fight another day will allow them to continue shaping policy. Shultz’s saga of triumph and turmoil offers a reminder that the brutal moral conditions Republican administrations impose on those who work in them were not just confined to Trump, but have been manifest all along.

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Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.