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Biographer Remembers Former Secretary Of State George Shultz

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former Secretary of State George Shultz died yesterday at the age of 100. Over the course of his remarkable career, he held four cabinet-level positions in Republican administrations - labor secretary, Treasury secretary and budget director under President Nixon. Then for six years, he served Ronald Reagan as secretary of state, where he earned a reputation as both a statesman and a pragmatist.

PHILIP TAUBMAN: I think if you talk to his peers in terms of fellow secretaries of state - and I've talked to all of them - you would find a great deal of respect and admiration for the way he managed to stick it out through these stormy times in the Reagan administration and end up prevailing.

MARTIN: That's Philip Taubman. He covered Shultz as a reporter for The New York Times and is now writing his biography.

TAUBMAN: His opponents in the Reagan administration, they would have described him as obstinate, stubborn, bull-headed and wrong-headed. Most of them saw him as a peacenik.

MARTIN: Much of that divide was about the Soviet Union, a subject that would later unite Reagan and Shultz and lead to an easing of diplomatic tensions between two nuclear powers.

TAUBMAN: He was a consummate problem-solver, and that's what he did in all of those cabinet jobs. And in the - at the end of the day, I think it's fair to say that he helped solve the biggest problem that the world faced in the second half of the 20th century, which was the Cold War.

MARTIN: That problem-solving began with relationships. First, he had to guide Reagan, who had surrounded himself with anti-communist hard-liners, toward more moderate policies. One turning point came in February of 1983. With a snowstorm canceling a trip to Camp David, Nancy Reagan invited the Shultzs to dinner.

TAUBMAN: So the Shultzs managed to get to the White House through the snow. And they had dinner in the family quarters upstairs. And it was really the first time that he and Reagan had a chance to talk about the Soviet Union in a kind of calm, quiet way. And he realized at that point that Reagan and he were on the same wavelength about wanting to moderate the Cold War.

MARTIN: Shultz used his relationships to influence big policies, but Taubman says Shultz enjoyed the personal aspects of diplomacy.

TAUBMAN: And he would talk about the people that he helped during that period as secretary of state. And he always would start with Ida Nudel, who was a Soviet citizen at the time, a Jew, who could not emigrate from the Soviet Union. And George worked hard to try to get Ida Nudel free to emigrate to Israel. And she was allowed to emigrate. And this was how George saw the world. Yes, there were these big geopolitical issues and strategies that he dealt with, but at the end of the day, what he thought was really important was his ability to spread freedom to places where it had never existed before.

MARTIN: And Taubman says that outlook and Schulz's personal approach to diplomacy are enduring parts of his legacy.

TAUBMAN: One was an important moment, when Eduard Shevardnadze had just become the Soviet foreign minister. And Shultz realized there might be a change in personality. So when the two men met for the first time at a conference in Helsinki, Finland, and the first thing that George Shultz did when he entered the hall was not to go and sit at his seat in the front row, but to go and put down his papers and climb up the auditorium to the top row where the Soviet delegation was seated and to greet Shevardnadze. And that was a personal gesture that really meant a lot to Shevardnadze.

And I can tell you how much their relationship meant, because long after the demise of the Soviet Union, I went to interview him about Shultz, and he told his aide to get some papers. And they were Christmas cards that George and Charlotte Shultz had sent him over the past decade. And he had kept them. And he said, you know, George and I were like soulmates.

MARTIN: That's Philip Taubman. He is currently working on a biography of former secretary of state, Treasury and labor, George Shultz, who died yesterday at the age of 100. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.