On February 6, 2021, the world lost a giant with the passing of George P. Shultz. In his honor, we revisit the Gazette’s October 2017 Interview with the ultimate power couple, George and Charlotte Shultz — the likes of which we will never again see in this city.
George Shultz served in the Marines during World War II and went on to a distinguished career as an economist, statesman, businessman and academic. He’s one of two individuals in United States history to serve in four different Cabinet positions, including secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. In 1989, George received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He was also a longtime fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Charlotte, dubbed SF’s “premier party planner,” grew up in Borger, Texas, but in her 20s adopted San Francisco as her own. From the moment she set foot in the city, the civic leader has left an indelible mark. She has served as the City’s chief of protocol under 10 mayors and also fills the same role for the state of California, welcoming heads of state, royalty and countless diplomats with grace and a whole lot of that Texas charm. (Will anyone ever forget the 50th birthday celebration she threw for the Golden Gate Bridge that drew hundreds of thousands of people?)
I sat down with the pair in their Russian Hill penthouse overlooking the city they love. With their American Cocker Spaniel, Stanford, relaxing on the carpet before his Gazette debut, the Shultzes and I ran the gamut of topics from politics to nuclear disarmament, to finding true love at a mature age.
Charlotte, you grew up in small-town Texas and your dad ran a five-and-dime store there, is that right?
Charlotte: Yes. My mother and father both worked. I was kind of the cook. I remember I used to iron, and I’d have a hundred pieces. I’d start out with the napkins and work up to the white shirts.
You’ve come a long way from Texas. What brought you to San Francisco?
Charlotte: Good luck! I went to Los Angeles out of college, got a job, and it just didn’t seem like the right fit. I didn’t understand L.A. One of my roommates had some money and a car. I had no money and I didn’t know a soul. She’d gone to school in the East, some girls’ school, and a [classmate] lived in Piedmont. So she called her friend and she said, “Well, we’ll meet you someplace. Just drive to the middle of San Francisco.”
And we said, “The middle?”
And she said, “Well, go to Nob Hill.”
And we said, “Nob Hill?”
She said, “Yeah, we’ll meet you at the Fairmont Hotel.”
And we said, “Oh, OK.”
So, we got there and I got into that lobby, and I thought, “Wow!” — you know, people-watching. … And I didn’t know that I’d really have a lot to do with the Fairmont — just recently, the Tony Bennett statue. I thought, “You know, unless they run me out of this town, I’m not leaving.” Of course, when I did the Golden Gate Bridge celebration and almost flattened it out, I thought, “This may be it. This may be it.”
So, what did you do when you moved here?
Charlotte: I thought, “I’ve got to do something that pays me.” I went to work for SPUR [San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association]. I told them that I could do anything. I was, like, the receptionist and the accountant. In those days, they had those big yellow pages that you entered numbers on. I didn’t know where to put the zeros. I mean, it was that bad.
Charlotte: But anyway, I survived that. And while I was working there, I volunteered for the [John F.] Shelley campaign. He was running for mayor. I walked in there one night and said, “I’m here to volunteer.” The next morning they found me still there ’cause I had reorganized all their systems of people, of sponsors and so forth. So then I went to work. I started a group called the Shelley Girls. We’d ride around on cable cars and pass out stuff. And it got in Herb Caen. Now, my boss was working for the other candidate. He came and threw it on my desk and he said, “Quit SPUR, or quit Shelley.” I replied, “Well, I won’t do either because, you know, it’s my own time.” I ended up in Shelley’s office. And now I’ve been with nine mayors since then.
George, you recently wrote a book, Learning From Experience, that chronicles some of the lessons you learned from your time in the United States Marine Corps and government, academia and in business. Why did you decide to write the book?
George: Well, that goes back to the Marine Corps. When I came to boot camp 75 years ago at the start of World War II, I remember when the sergeant handed me my rifle. He said, “Take good care of this rifle, this is your best friend, and remember one thing: Never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger. No empty threats.”
We have empty threats littering the landscape. President Obama actually totally deprived himself of any strength at all by drawing a bright red line on the Syrian use of chemical weapons, and doing nothing when they did it. I told that boot camp story to President Reagan. We were very careful in our use of words. We might be in the Situation Room having a meeting, and somebody would say, “If they do that, that’s unacceptable.” And Reagan would say, “Well, what are you going to do if they do it? If the answer is nothing, that’s not unacceptable. You accepted it. So don’t say it’s unacceptable unless you’re willing to do something.” He seemed very careful about use of words. Words matter.
It seems like a lot of leaders don’t understand that today.
George: A lot don’t get tested. I served in the Eisenhower administration. He understood it. He was a general. Very careful.
I want to talk a little bit about your work in the Nixon administration. You had a strong leadership role in the desegregation of public schools in seven Southern states, long after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down. Tell me about that experience.
George: It was one of the most interesting things I was involved in, in public policy. In 1970, there were seven states in the South that still had legally segregated schools. At that time, Nixon decided he would implement the Brown decision. But you couldn’t just announce that. You had to manage it [the transition to desegregated schools] somehow or other. So Nixon appointed a [Cabinet] committee to tackle the problem, making Vice President Spiro Agnew the chairman and me the vice chairman. But Agnew would have nothing to do with the subject. So I became the chairman.
And so, as I understand it, you formed these racially diverse committees from each of the seven states, brought them to the White House, one committee at a time, and let them just start talking to each other. What happened from there?
George: Well, you know you have to let people blow offsteam, but when they’re arguing about principles, they’re not going to get anywhere. But I let them blow offsteam. In the meantime, I had the attorney general [John Mitchell] standing by, and when the time was right, I had him come in the room and asked him, “So, what are you going to do about the schools?”
And, he said, “Go around and enforce the law.”
I thanked him for coming in and then said [to the committees], “Well, it’s been a fascinating discussion this morning, but sort of irrelevant. So the only question now is, what are the problems that are going to arise and what are we going to do about them? They’re your children and your communities.”
I think it’s true of Americans, once you get them talking about problems, their whole instinct is to solve a problem.
When you left the Nixon administration, you went into the private sector, working for the Bechtel Corporation. Why did you make that decision?
George: Well, I had been a professor. I had written books, taught classes, been a dean. So when I was getting ready to leave the Treasury, I had offers to come to various universities to have chairs. Arjay Miller at Stanford offered me a chair. I said, “Arjay, I’ve been working hard. I don’t want a chair, I want a couch.” I said, “I’ve had an academic career, now I’ve had a government career. Why not try business?” So I got some nice offers. I was surprised. The one that I liked the best was from Steve Bechtel. Because the idea of building something appealed to me. It wasn’t abstract. When you got through with what you did, there was a product.
And did it live up to your expectations?
George: I really loved it. When you go to a country to build something, you have to hire people, you let them go, you train them, you have to buy things and sell things and get your money out of the country, and you learn about this stuff in a way that a diplomat never does. So when I became secretary of state, people, said, “Oh, he’s just an economist, businessman. What does he know about diplomacy?” I said, “I know a lot about my country. … and I know about the countries where we’ve done work, how they work. Really how they work. So I have a big advantage as a result.”
Charlotte, you have been called the ultimate party planner. But that sort of devalues what you do as chief of protocol. It’s an important job. What does it entail, and what makes you so good at it?
Charlotte: Well, I don’t know that I’m good at it. I’ve been doing it for a long time, for one thing. You learn by mistakes. We are very fortunate to have one of the largest consular corps in the United States. Except we just lost Russia, right? He’s a really nice guy, but that’s another story.
And so a new consul general comes. He comes with some staff and a wife and a family. I tend to think they send the very best people to San Francisco. They bring a great deal to our city, business- and culture-wise. And because San Francisco is so multiethnic, each of them has a constituency here. For instance, we do a flag-raising for the equivalent of each country’s Fourth of July and declare that it’s their day in San Francisco. We raise the flag in front of City Hall, and we have food that is indigenous to their area, and sparkling wine or whatever from their country. And they are so appreciative. I mean, they get teary because we’ve recognized their culture.
It’s a wonderful thing for the City, and I get really emotional about it because they leave after four years. You’ve made these friends, and when they leave, I say, “Get a place that has bedrooms because we’re going to be visiting you. You know, you’re not leaving us! And you can always come back.”
George: Let me interject. I think governing has become much more complicated as a result of the information revolution. All of a sudden, people know what’s going on very quickly and easily. They can communicate with each other, they can organize, and they do. Diversity is everywhere. It used to be possible to ignore it or suppress it, but you can’t do that anymore. You’ve got to learn how to govern over diversity.
That’s what Charlotte’s doing. We have the most diversity in the world right here. What Charlotte does is reach out and say, “We respect your different cultures.” Very few people know how to do that.
One of the great things besides diversity in San Francisco is the generosity of the people. And I know you couldn’t do what you do without people’s generosity.
Charlotte: Yes, we have to raise money for all the events …
George: Of course, any CEO in San Francisco, or anybody who has wealth: If Charlotte’s coming to see you, you just take your wallet out.
You know what she’s coming about, right?
Charlotte: Oh, they’re all scared.
George, you talk a lot about trust and how trust is imperative in getting anything done, whether it’s in government or in the private sector. Can you talk a little bit about the role that trust played between you and Mikhail Gorbachev, and how that influenced the end of the Cold War?
George: With Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, his foreign minister, or Wu Xueqian and people in China, or wherever you are, you need to develop personal trust. Trust comes from being candid. If I agree that I’ll do something, then I’m going to do it. If I don’t do what I promised, then you can’t trust me, so you can’t deal with me anymore. It’s the counterpart, really, of “no empty threats.” It’s do what you say you’re going to do.
How did you build that trust with Russia when relations during the Reagan administration and before were very chilly?
George: They were chilly from the start. Gromyko was the foreign minister when I started. Relations were tense because Russia had invaded Afghanistan when Carter was president. Carter cut off all relations — no contact at all. No athletes for the Olympics. No meetings between Gromyko and the secretary of state. No nothing.
And Helmut Schmidt came over to see me. He was my friend. He’d been finance minister of Germany when I was secretary of the treasury. Now he was chancellor of Germany. We were good friends, really good friends. He said to me, “George, this situation is dangerous. There’s no human contact.”
So here we are in the Reagan administration. Reagan was a big anti-Communist guy, and the strains were still there. I got permission to have weekly meetings with [Soviet] Ambassador [Anatoly] Dobrynin. And the purpose of the meetings was, “There’s a weed — let’s get it out before it grows.” That’s all. Small.
I remember a time when I had just returned from a trip to China, landed at Andrews Air Force Base, early in the morning hours, lucky to land because it was snowing. Nancy Reagan calls. She says, “Why don’t you come over, have supper with us?” So, we’re sitting around having a drink … and all of a sudden, the president and first lady start asking me questions about the Chinese leaders. “What are they like? Do they have a sense of humor? Can you fi nd their bottom line?” And then they start asking me about Soviet leaders. So I’m talking about them and it dawns on me: This man has never had a real conversation with a big-time Communist leader. And he’s dying to have one.
So I said to him, “Mr. President, Dobrynin’s coming over to my office at 5:00 next Tuesday afternoon. What if I bring him over here, and you can talk to him?” He said, “That’s a good idea.” This was a giant piece of news.
So I bring Dobrynin over. We get in an unmarked car, we come over to the East Wing, go up to the family side. Nobody knows we are there. And we are there for at least an hour and a half. And Reagan, he surprised Dobrynin by how much he knew about the technicalities of the arms control. It wasn’t just generalizations; it was people and incidents. He was well informed.
How would you be dealing with Russia if you were secretary of state today?
George: Well, first of all, the turning point in the Cold War was when we deployed Pershing missiles in Germany.
If I were doing things today, I’d say we have to have a Pershing moment with the Russians — where they see we’re willing to pull the trigger. Go back to the whole Marine Corps thing. That we say “stop.”
My guess is that if we give the Ukrainians weapons, that would be a Persing moment. From what I’ve read about [Secretary of Defense] Jim Mattis, I understand they’re still considering that. But if that happens, then the Russians have to say, “OK, ballgame is over. We have to have a different approach.” Because they’re in a very weak position. But you’re not gonna get there by … trying to have a relationship now. It’s gotta be a Pershing moment.
Are you optimistic this may happen?
George: Well, Jim Mattis was at [the] Hoover [Institution] for about three years. I got to know him very well. He means business. You ask him his opinion, he tells you bluntly exactly what it is. There’s no dressing around it. He’s very believable.
I have to ask you about North Korea. I think many of us feel unsettled about the situation, even frightened.
George: It is frightening. [There] doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy on how to deal with North Korea.
Again, what would you do if you were there?
George: Well, it’s a hard call. Nobody can snap their fingers and say, “Here’s an insight.” Everybody agrees that it’s essential to be able to work with China. But we haven’t been able to do that. I had enough experience in dealing with the Chinese to feel that the present uneasy relationship is not necessarily the way it has to be.
China has a stranglehold on North Korea. If they cut their supplies, the economy of North Korea would collapse, but they don’t want to do that because they don’t know what would happen.
Charlotte, you must have to deal with your share of tricky diplomatic situations in your role as chief of protocol. Tell me about some of those and how you dealt with them.
Charlotte: Sometimes things happen where you have to really adjust. Like when the queen of England came to San Francisco [in 1983]. There was like a monsoon, and she was going to come in on the Britannia, she and Nancy [Reagan]. But then they couldn’t do that, so they flew in. We had to make all these changes. And, you know, a lot of people didn’t know the changes, so they didn’t know how to receive her or what to do. Well, anyway, she landed, and I remember that it rained … I mean, it was horrible. I remember they had the flags flown all around the port where the ship was going to come in. I went down to check it out, and they were all upside down.
Charlotte: For the royal trip to California, Los Angeles was going to have this big thing with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. So I go to Steve Silver of Beach Blanket Babylon. He was in a lawsuit, so I went to the courthouse, which was on the fourth floor in City Hall. And when he came out, I said, “Steve, you have got to help me. You have got to help me.”
He said, “I’m in a lawsuit.”
So I said, “I’ll meet you every time there’s a break. I’ll bring a yellow pad, and they’ll think we’re talking about the lawsuit.”
Well anyway, we put on an event. It was 17 minutes long. We had 2,000 people in it — bands, Tony Bennett and Mary Martin. And we put on the show of all shows. The queen was laughing out loud.
I know you both love a good party. Is there a particular one that stands out in your mind?
George: When I had lost my wife, and I was lonely … and things weren’t so good. And Charlotte invites me to a party.
Charlotte: I’d known him and his wife for a long time.
George: And I knew Charlotte. So, she invites me to a party for Peter Duchin. He had a book … What was the name of that book? Ghost of a Chance. So I came. It was a terrific party. After I left, I said to myself, “You know, for the first time in over a year, I had a good time. So I’ll have to see this girl again.”