George Shultz reflects on a meaningful life, whether he wants to or not

L.A. Cicero George Shultz

As the 2009 Rathbun Visiting Fellow, George Shultz met with small groups of students over two days and delivered a lecture in Memorial Church. Rob Reich, right, moderated a conversation with students Monday.

After a career that included service to three universities, two presidential Cabinets and one of the largest companies in the country, it seems natural that George Shultz would take the time to reflect on the influences and decisions that guided him during his 88 years.

Natural to everyone, that is, except George Shultz.

"I'm not a very introspective person," he said during a lecture Monday night in Memorial Church. "About all I can do is tell stories."

And so he did as the 2009 Rathbun Visiting Fellow charged with examining what it means to live a meaningful life. The fellowship honors Harry Rathbun, the late Stanford law professor who delivered what became known as "Harry's Last Lecture" from the 1930s through the 1950s.

In meetings with small groups of students Monday and Tuesday and during his lecture at Memorial Church, Shultz recounted his experiences as a college football player, an economist, a Marine during World War II, a secretary of labor and the Treasury in the Nixon administration and President Reagan's secretary of state.

Throughout those jobs, and even later as a top executive at Bechtel Corp., Shultz was both a teacher and a student, learning from those around him and showing others the importance of balancing personal values with loyalty to a larger cause.

His goal of reducing the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons as secretary of state earned Shultz a "handbagging" from Margaret Thatcher when the former British prime minister swatted him with her pocketbook during a disagreement the two had over nuclear nonproliferation.

His advice to Reagan that an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran was a bad idea and subsequent clashes with the president's other advisers on the Iran-Contra affair nearly cost him his job.

But sticking to his beliefs in both situations demonstrated his commitment to world peace and the need for government accountability.

"I was opposed to what was going on," Shultz said about the Iran-Contra coverup that he said was being pushed by the CIA and the National Security Council. "When the fat was in the fire, I had a battle royal, and I was ready to be fired. I had my views. In the end, a lot of people said I was being disloyal to the president. I said no—you're the one being disloyal to the president."

As he kept changing hats—going from the world of economics to the Marines, and from government service to private industry—there has been at least one constant in Shultz's life: higher education.

As a professor at MIT and then the University of Chicago, where he was also a dean, and finally at Stanford, where he is a professor emeritus of international economics at the Graduate School of Business and the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Shultz has clung to academia as a source of guiding principles.

"What the university is is the world of ideas," Shultz said. "I've seen a lot of people go into government positions, and they get lost because they don't have any ideas. If you have ideas, at least you have direction. Ideas are your compass."

Along with his stories from the frontlines of battle and tough diplomacy, the one-time cold warrior and constant messenger for a nuclear-free world didn't shy away from letting students in on his more personal side.

He joked about the alleged homage to Princeton, his alma mater, which may or may not be tattooed on his backside. ("I have a no confirm or deny policy.")

He talked about hearing the news—while in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery—that his grandson was dead. ("I was in bed. Helpless.")

He talked about the last cup of coffee he had with his mother, just a few hours before she died. ("You can't spend enough time with your mother. When you lose her, you feel it.")

He talked about his policy of avoiding most embassy parties so he could spend evenings with his family. ("I went home and sat with my wife and we had a drink.")

And he said how impressed he was when Barack Obama took a break from his presidential campaign to spend a few days with his dying grandmother. ("I said, 'Oh—he's got his priorities right.'")

If that seems like the elder statesman is indeed prone to reflection on a life well lived, he will certainly argue differently.

"I haven't thought about the meaning of my life," he said. "I've just done things. And they've added up."