News & Politics

Pushback as Public Service

A PBS series about former Secretary of State George P. Shultz raises questions about how best to serve the President

PBS’s new three-part series about the life and work of former Secretary of State George P. Shultz was produced by Free to Choose Media, a nonprofit that “focuses on issues of personal, economic, and political freedom” and was built on the shoulders of a series hosted by economist Milton Friedman. It was funded in part by the foundation arm of a company of which Shultz was president, by conservative businessman and former Commerce Secretary Peter G. Peterson, and by Charles Schwab, among others. All of those influences show in the rather rosy Turmoil and Triumph: The George Shultz Years—which airs at 10 PM on July 12, 19, and 26—but the series is still sometimes a revealing portrait of Washington service, no matter your relation to the show’s politics or that of its backers.

“If the President asks you to do something and you feel you’re reasonably competent to do it, then I feel as though you have a duty to serve,” Shultz says at the beginning of the first episode. It’s a rather humble explanation for taking government office, but what makes it interesting is how Shultz defines service, less as executing presidential commands than as offering independent counsel. The series makes much of his work convincing President Reagan to engage directly and personally with the Soviet Union and to disentangle himself from Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos.

But given that approach to government service, it’s odd that the series doesn’t give Shultz more room to discuss certain key moments in his career. It’s nice to know that the narrator thinks that even though Shultz wanted American troops in Lebanon, “he has had nothing to do with tying them down to an exposed position that’s difficult to defend.” But even if Shultz isn’t responsible for strategic decisions, why make a portentous statement like that if you’ve got the man himself around to discuss how he feels about the barracks bombing? And why show students asking Shultz questions about moral decision-making and, instead of having him answer them, show him prepping a family steak recipe with his kids? There’s nothing wrong with the latter sort of scene for color, but not if it substitutes for more salient discussions about Shultz’s role as a presidential adviser.

And some of the color—especially about Shultz’s early career at the University of Chicago—is quite illuminating. The National Black MBA Association, for example, has its origins at Chicago’s business school in part because, in an effort to make the school more diverse, Shultz asked businesses to put up money for scholarships for African-American students and to guarantee them summer jobs so more of them could afford to pursue business degrees. Details like that reveal Shultz as the somewhat idiosyncratic Republican that he is. More about the George Shultz who favors recreational-drug legalization and ending the embargo against Cuba in the belief that free trade will weaken the Castro regime (especially because Shultz is the Secretary of State with the most background in economics) would have been fun. But at least we get shots of Imelda Marcos’s shoes and trade liberalization with Japan. And a lot of kosher salt on that steak for flavor.

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