The death of George Shultz

Rereading Miami this morning, I underlined Joan Didion passage about the Office of Public Diplomacy, a knee-slapper of an org name given little of its business was public, let alone diplomatic. Although “under the aegis” of the State Department, Didion writes, the NSC and White House pulled the strings. Explaining how men in power tell underlings the stories the latter want to believe and that the men in power come to believe in themselves is one of Didion’s fascinations; the enchanters enchant themselves:

One thing that was less clear, in those high years of the Reagan administration when we had not yet begun to see just how the markers were being moved, was how many questions there might later be about what had been the ends and what the means, what the problem and the solution; about what, among people who measured the consequences of what they said and did exclusively in terms of approval ratings affected and network news calibrated and pieces of legislation passed or not passed, had come first, the war for the minds of mankind or the private funding network or the need to make a move for those troops on the far frontiers.

The obituaries will praise the late George Shultz, rightly, for sizing up Mikhail Gorbachev and, better, Eduard Shevardnaze as men not forged from the geriatric steel of their predecessors. His reputation for probity dated from serving in two discrete Cabinet posts in the Nixon White House, which even given the unhappy sadist sitting in the Oval Office looked like Thomas Jefferson’s Cabinet compared to Reagan’s. In his endless life, this former CEO of Bechtel thought climate change a grave threat. Unlike many of his Republican. successors, Shultz lacked the schoolyard malice with which they relished inflicting cruelties on subordinates and citizens.

But I took the trouble of transcribing the passage because whether Shultz, to borrow a didionisme, did or did not lead the Office of Public Diplomacy he mutely let it exist “under” his department’s “aegis.” When these fantasists, chicken hawks, repressed homosexuals and, dollar book crypto-fascists stirred their cauldrons filled with resentments toward Congress, leftism, and democracy, Shultz could place tortoise head to pillow, agonies of conscience mollified and anxieties about legal prosecution from independent counsels and congressional investigatory committees quashed. Looking the other way as jackanapes who thought John Rambo was sex in human form steered Central American policy was the price Shultz for keeping limo privileges. Before the events leading to Iran-Contra, Shultz encouraged the U.S. incursion into Lebanon over the protestations of his for once skeptical archenemy Caspar Weinberger, then “worked tirelessly” to extricate ourselves after Hezbollah bombs killed 241 Marines.

In later years Shultz played a kindly reptilian mandarin, endorsing the Iraq War and denouncing what Donald J. Trump had done to the geopolitical order Shultz had helped created. The Theranos affair happened a few years ago: it proffered astonishment after astonishment, the biggest of which was learning how Shultz sued his grandson after the guy warned him the health tech firm was was as much a sham as Trump University. To live as long as Shultz is to realize there are more things to forgive.

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