George Shultz, who influenced geopolitics around the world as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, served two other presidents and rose to the highest levels of business and academia in a career that touched seven decades, died Saturday at age 100.
His death was announced by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he had long served as a distinguished fellow. Shultz died at his home on the university campus, Stanford said.
Shultz helped steer U.S. foreign policy during some of the frostiest years of the Cold War in the 1980s, leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and ’70s, he held three Cabinet posts under Richard Nixon — labor secretary, Treasury secretary and director of the Office of Management and Budget — and helped form an alliance of the world’s most powerful free-market economies whose leaders still meet annually to work out policy differences.
Between those stints in Washington, Shultz lived in San Francisco and served as head of Bechtel Corp. — a multinational engineering firm that builds dams, bridges, airports and nuclear plants. After leaving government, he joined Stanford University as a professor of international economics. At the time of his death, he had been a fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, for more than 30 years.
Well into his later years, Shultz remained active in San Francisco’s social scene with his wife, city Chief of Protocol Charlotte Shultz, and on occasion its political life as well. In the city’s 2018 mayoral election, he talked up London Breed’s candidacy in conservative circles.
California officials on Sunday noted Shultz’s contributions to California as well as his foreign policy legacy. Mayor Breed hailed him as “a giant in our community” who “used his role as a respected statesman to serve as a bridge builder between other countries and our City.”
Breed also said, “It’s important to remember that he was a fierce advocate for what many of us consider ‘San Francisco values,’” including high-quality public education, accessible health care, and “mutual respect and dignity for people from all walks of life.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom said Shultz “operated with a commitment to tending relationships and building trust across every conceivable divide that we should all strive to emulate.”
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted that Shultz had been one of his earliest supporters and “was a wonderful mentor to me and a visionary for our country.”
Shultz was a diplomat at heart — he established a personal trust with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and other heads of state at critical moments in history.
“You don’t lead in the world by telling people what to do,” Shultz said in 2016 during a conversation recorded at the Hoover Institution. “You lead by being helpful. You have to persuade and engage.”
“It is a talent, and an approach, sorely needed today,” wrote Jim Hoagland, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Hoover fellow, in the foreword to Shultz’s 2016 book “Learning from Experience.”
Although he served or advised Republican presidents since Dwight Eisenhower, Shultz had little interaction with Donald Trump, before or after his 2016 election. In 2016, Shultz called Trump a “showman” and, with characteristic generosity, praised him for being “good at that.”
He added that voter support for Trump “becomes a very sobering question.” But he left it at that, and did not join the 50 former GOP national security officials who condemned Trump before the election as too dangerous for the presidency.
Shultz held a right-leaning world view but felt every bit at home in left-leaning San Francisco. He advocated for the decriminalization of recreational drugs, drove a plug-in car and powered his second home in Palo Alto with solar panels. In 2017, he weighed in on the debate over whether California Sen. Dianne Feinstein was too old too serve effectively. In a letter published in The Chronicle defending the Democratic senator, Schultz wrote: “At 96 years old, I consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein to be a promising young woman.”
At his passing, Feinstein tweeted she was “heartbroken,” and that “George lived a life of enormous credibility and honor. I think no one was a better standard-bearer and honorable representative for this country.”
Condoleezza Rice, a former secretary of state and current director of the Hoover Institution, called Shultz “a great American statesman and a true patriot in every sense of the word … a man who made the world a better place.”
George Pratt Shultz was born on Dec. 13, 1920, in Manhattan, and was raised in New Jersey. As an only child, Shultz wrote in his 1993 memoir, “Turmoil and Triumph,” “My parents loved me, and I knew it.”
He grew up during the Depression and studied economics at Princeton University, specializing in industrial relations. Though an economic conservative, he felt sympathy for the poor, thanks to his experience with worker retraining and collective bargaining.
He lived with a “so-called hillbilly family” while writing his senior thesis on the Tennessee Valley Authority, he said in his memoir. It was with that family that he learned the value of trust — and that government statistics can lie, he wrote.
“If you are going to get people to talk candidly, they have to trust you,” he wrote. “And trust takes time to develop.”
Shultz joined the Marines shortly after Pearl Harbor, fighting in an antiaircraft artillery unit in the Pacific, and rose to the rank of captain. He said a boot camp drill instructor taught him a lesson he carried throughout his career: “Never point this rifle at someone unless you are willing to pull the trigger.”
The military offered him something else of immense value: Lt. Helena Maria O’Brien, an Army nurse whom he married on Feb. 16, 1946. They had five children and were together for nearly 50 years until her death in 1995, at 80, from pancreatic cancer.
Shultz’s devotion to his wife was evident in a story he told in his memoir about the time he and “O’Bie,” as she was known, arrived in Washington during the early days of the Reagan presidency. White House aides pointed Helena Shultz toward a car that would take her to a hotel, and directed George Shultz toward a helicopter that would fly him to Camp David for an emergency meeting on the Middle East.
“We come as a package deal,” Shultz replied, and they both entered the helicopter.
After the war, Shultz earned his doctorate in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The school offered him a teaching job after he graduated, the first in an academic career that included business dean at the University of Chicago, a hotbed of conservative economic thought that brought him under the influence of Nobel laureates Milton Friedman and George Stigler.
Shultz began his government service with a stint on Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers. In 1969, Nixon tapped him for the first of his three Cabinet-level posts, overseeing the Labor Department.
Shultz went next to the Office of Management and Budget and then became treasury secretary, overseeing the creation of flexible exchange rates after Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971. He also represented the United States in 1974 in a group of the five wealthiest international economies that met to try to forestall economic crises around the world. That original group would grow into seven and become known as the G7.
He resigned from the Nixon administration in 1974 in the midst of the Watergate scandal, yet was never tainted by it.
In an oral history recorded for the Nixon Library, Shultz told an interviewer that Nixon had asked him to help collect information on people the president didn’t like — politicians, journalists, celebrities and others — known infamously as the “enemies list.”
“I was being asked to do something improper, and I wouldn’t do it,” Shultz said.
He landed at Bechtel and became its president and an enthusiastic supporter of free trade.
“People who want to trade something should be able to develop their market and go ahead,” he said in 1978. “They should not have to ask anyone’s permission.”
Shultz returned to government in 1982 to be Reagan’s secretary of state. It was a time of rising tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with the two superpowers in a Cold War “as cold as it could get,” Shultz later reflected.
The Reagan administration’s top priority was to defeat communism — not only in the Eastern bloc but in Soviet-backed countries throughout the world, by aiding anti-communist guerrillas and rebels.
Shultz was confident the effort would succeed because, based on his experiences with Soviet leaders a decade earlier as treasury secretary, he considered the communist system increasingly unstable economically. He looked for evidence to bolster his view and found it, from the Soviets’ inability to buy enough grain for their people to their growing willingness to let Jews emigrate.
While Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shared this view, Shultz said, the CIA and others did not. He had battles with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and William Casey, director of the CIA, whom he characterized as anti-Soviet hardliners.
At the time, Shultz described Reagan as a “prisoner of his own staff,” undermined by Machiavellian internal power struggles whose players used leaks, secrecy, end runs and obstruction to undermine Cabinet officials and an orderly chain of command.
Problems with White House-centric policymaking reached a crescendo in the mid-1980s with the Iran-Contra scandal. The Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran — which was under an arms embargo — in exchange for Iran arranging the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. The administration used the money from the arms sale to fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, called Contras, after Congress had cut off aid to the guerrillas.
Shultz battled the scheme internally, believing it was illegal and concluding correctly that it would deeply wound Reagan’s second term.
He said the problem of White House incursions on foreign policy was so bad that he twice offered to resign from his post atop the State Department.
“You can conduct foreign policy out of the White House if you want to,” Shultz said he once told the president, “but you don’t need me under those circumstances.”
But the president sided with his secretary of state, who encouraged Reagan’s strategy of simultaneously building up the military and pursuing arms control deals with the Soviets.
“I was proud to be a pragmatist,” Shultz said in his memoir, contrasting his approach with those of hard-line “right wingers” who he said sought U.S. power as its own end rather than as a tool to negotiate peace.
After leaving Washington at the end of Reagan’s presidency, Shultz collected numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom conferred by President George H.W. Bush for his Cabinet service.
He also continued working. Of at least 18 books he authored or co-authored on topics including nuclear security, prescriptions for the nation’s future, Social Security, energy, diplomacy and communicating with the Islamic world, 13 were published after Shultz turned 90 — including “A Hinge of History: Governance in an Emerging New World,” published in November.
As a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution, he steered future GOP presidents and presidential nominees on foreign policy. He also stayed active in the business world, where he made a misstep — backing a Silicon Valley blood-testing startup, Theranos, whose CEO resigned after being charged with fraud.
In 2011, Shultz met entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford to become CEO of Theranos. He joined its board, and helped promote it and recruit other board members, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich.
Theranos was later revealed to have faked blood tests and overstated its technological capabilities. Shultz resigned from the Theranos board in 2017 and Holmes was later charged with fraud.
Shultz was as practiced in the social world as he was in government and business. In Washington, he considered it his duty to show up at receptions at foreign embassies even when he might have preferred to stay home. He invariably held open a door for any woman in the vicinity. And he danced well enough to persuade the great Ginger Rogers, his partner one evening, to smile and say she thought she was dancing with Fred Astaire.
In 1997, Shultz married Charlotte Mailliard, with whom he found new love at age 77. After their wedding in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, the couple became fixtures of high society in the city.
Shultz died at 9:20 Saturday night at home with his wife and cocker spaniel Stanford by his side.
“There were two things he wanted to do,” Charlotte Shultz said Sunday. “One was to celebrate his 100th birthday and the other was to be at home when the moment came. He got his prayers answered on both.”
In 2015, a Chronicle reporter interviewed Shultz and noted that he had traveled the world. What was his favorite place?
He said his thoughts increasingly turned to the lives his great-grandchildren will lead.
“I can’t help but ask myself, ‘What kind of a world will they inherit?’” he said. “They are my motivation. I’m living for their future.”
He urged the Republican Party to take climate change seriously, endorsing a tax on carbon emissions to try to minimize greenhouse-gas output.
“The new ocean that is being created in the Arctic for the first time since the Ice Age with important consequences — positive and negative — is observable evidence that the planet is growing warmer,” Shultz wrote in the preface to his 2014 book “Game Changers: Energy on the Move.”
Finally, he was asked, if fate had not made him a captain of industry, a public servant or a distinguished academic, what would he have liked to do?
Shultz paused before answering. “I’d like to be a musician,” he said. “And play piano in a band.”
In addition to Charlotte Shultz, he is survived by five children; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Sam Whiting and Steve Rubenstein contributed to this report.