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First Impressions

What Civic Virtue Looks Like

Dutiful servant and effective leader, he remains a pillar in a sea of pretenders.

Photo: John G. Mabanglo/AP Photo

By Kevin Cool

What’s your definition of a patriot?

Judging from the obligatory displays of American flag lapel pins on virtually every politician in office (and most seeking office), one might gather that it’s important to wear it, so to speak. 

In some quarters, folks who brandish guns and trumpet antigovernment grievances and take over public land are hailed as heroic defenders of liberty. Some of them carried copies of the Constitution in their pockets, implying, I suppose, that they were Patriotic Americans.

Very often, patriotic zeal seems strangely disconnected from patriotic actions, bearing little or no evidence of duty, honor or service to the needs of the nation. What is a patriot, really?

Me, I’ll take George Shultz.

I’ll take the Marine captain who helped secure the strategically important island of Angaur in 1944, a brutal battle against an entrenched and ferociously determined Japanese defense. In 16 days of fighting, 1,600 of Shultz’s fellow soldiers were killed or wounded.

I’ll take the guy who, when confronted with blatant racial discrimination against a colleague, calmly and forcefully made sure he would be housed at the same hotel, hotel policy be damned. 

I’ll take the four-time Cabinet member whose diplomatic skill and seasoned judgment helped navigate and eventually end the Cold War, while also substantially reducing nuclear weapons. 

In large, dramatic ways that changed history, and in small everyday gestures that exemplify a principled man, George Shultz has made our country better, day after day after day. 

And he is still doing it, at age 95.

I worked on Capitol Hill for one year during the Reagan administration as a press aide for a U.S. senator. George Shultz was the newly installed secretary of state. Although his boss was alternately revered and reviled inside the Beltway, Shultz seemed to transcend the ideological territory so many others occupied. I sensed that he viewed himself as a public servant first; he valued professional ability over political fidelity, and his appointments reflected that impulse.  

Partisanship at that time was less toxic than it is now, but even then Shultz stood out as a person respected by friends and foes alike. How sad it is that in today’s political climate what we used to call statesmanship—the ability to seek out common ground and reconcile differences—is often characterized as treachery, a sign of “weakness,” likely to invite talk-show takedowns within the echo chambers that substitute for meaningful discourse. 

Beginning on page 50, Robert Strauss digs deep into Shultz’s life and accomplishments, excavating little-known anecdotes alongside the world-altering moments in which this great man had a principal role. It is both a lively read and an excellent history lesson.

For me, Shultz’s story has resonance beyond its historical import. In this age of blowhards and bloviating, when rhetoric often outflanks reason, it would be tempting to say George Shultz was a man of his time. But what’s more true is that he is a man for any time. Now more than ever.

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