The great Republican George Shultz turned 100 years old last Sunday.
He marked the occasion by pointing to the most important thing he had discovered in all those years, during which he had served in combat as a marine, in the Eisenhower government as an economics adviser, in the Nixon and Reagan administrations as a cabinet secretary and later in many other significant roles.
“I’m struck that there is one lesson I learned early and then relearned over and over: Trust is the coin of the realm.”
A man of character, a big, steady-eyed pragmatist, Mr. Shultz always looked for opportunities to build trust. “When trust was in the room,” he wrote, “… good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.”
John F. Kennedy once said, “I don’t believe in personal feuds. There is no percentage in them.” It’s a wise thought, and a perspective from which Mr. Shultz operated.
As the second secretary of state to Ronald Reagan, he helped build trust with many nations, Canada included. Relations had grown strained partly on account of prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s ornery attitude to Mr. Reagan, who he didn’t think was very bright. Mr. Shultz worked to calm things down with the Liberals and was a central player in completely refashioning bilateral relations when the Tory government of Brian Mulroney took over.
Indicative of his style were some of his memoranda to the president I saw while doing book research. He urged the president, as one of the notes stated, to handle disagreements “in a manner that avoids embarrassing Mr. Mulroney with his public.”
Despite being consumed by Cold War issues, Mr. Shultz conferred with foreign minister Joe Clark so often that he claimed no other administration had devoted more time to bilateral relations than Reagan’s.
In his 100th birthday observations in The Washington Post, Mr. Shultz did not have to provide chapter and verse on how, in relations at home and abroad, trust has come to be replaced by rancour and antagonism by Donald Trump’s administration.
But he is likely to be encouraged by what happened in tandem with his words. On Monday, Joe Biden was certified by the electoral college as the duly elected president – this, after trust in even something as sacrosanct as a democratic election had been shorn by wild charges of vote-rigging from the Trump tribe.
On the very same day, the first vaccination to immunize Americans against the novel coronavirus that was ravaging the country was administered. Following months and months of faulty, failed efforts to contain the virus, the U.S. came through in the clutch, producing vaccines in record time.
On both counts, trust in the American way was restored. Some observers went so far as to claim that the day constituted a historic turning point for the country.
That may be a bit excessive. The numbers dying from the pandemic are appalling. And there isn’t exactly peace on the Potomac: Mr. Trump is still tweeting that the election was rigged, claiming that there was “tremendous evidence pouring in on voter fraud,” even after Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell congratulated Mr. Biden on his victory on Tuesday, And there is still some drama to be played out when the House and Senate meet together on Jan. 6 to confirm or dispute the electoral college vote.
But the die appears cast. The country has begun moving in the right direction on politics and the pandemic.
Though it was the private sector in the form of Pfizer and Moderna that produced the vaccine, Mr. Trump could take some credit for his government’s role in forging Operation Warp Speed, as it is called. It turned out to be exactly that fast. Mr. Trump vowed the vaccine could come before the end of the year. Critics didn’t believe him. They were wrong.
But rather than celebrate the vaccine’s arrival while conceding the election, Mr. Trump appears set on continuing to foment division. He will have a powerful voice when he leaves the presidency, but nowhere near the megaphone power that the Oval Office provided.
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, is trying to keep things on an even keel. While impugning Mr. Trump for obvious reasons, he has avoided inflaming tensions with unduly provocative rhetoric.
He is most fortunate with the timing of the vaccine’s arrival as he can begin his presidency with a remedy for the heinous affliction in hand.
Rebuilding that vital ingredient of trust that George Shultz talks about will be a monumental task. But this week provided hope. The two things that had to happen did happen.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.