A man for all seasons

Why did we write a cover story on centenarian statesman George Shultz in 2020? It’s simple. He’s a builder – someone who searches for solutions.

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor/File
George Shultz in 1986, during the time he served as secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan.

Dear reader, let me implore you to take a good look at the man on the cover of our magazine this week. You won’t regret it.

I hope you were able to drink that in, because in one glorious, tweedy photo, photographer Tony Avelar has caught the essence of the story Howard LaFranchi tells. Who dresses like that anymore? Who commands such presence? Who so palpably radiates accrued wisdom? Who else could make heads of state feel like naughty schoolchildren by raising one august eyebrow?

One might call George Shultz a throwback. Of course, he’s not the only human to possess such qualities these days. But he wears the mantle of one of the greatest statesmen in modern American history with a bespoke blazer and an impeccably knotted Stanford tie. At a time when so much of world politics and policy seems unmoored and uncertain, Mr. Shultz is the living embodiment of the exact opposite – a reminder of the rock America once was in international affairs.

But nostalgia isn’t a reason to do a cover story. For a news organization that believes in the power of progress, the future is much more interesting. So, why George Shultz now in 2020? (Aside from the fabulous photo, of course.)

One reason, really. He’s a builder.

That was John Adams’ word as the founder looked for people who were not bystanders or merely critics, keen to point out only what was wrong. New York Times columnist David Brooks calls them weavers – people who forge connections, search for solutions, and help knit society together.

That’s something the Monitor stands for. Often, news organizations including the Monitor are judged by where readers think we stand on the left-right axis of politics. Fair enough. In a time of polarization, we all could stand some scrutiny on whether our personal political opinions are impairing our ability to cover the full spectrum of news – not just seeing through blue or red glasses.

But the Monitor seeks to be judged on a different axis. Who can look into the world’s most intractable problems – from nuclear proliferation to human rights violations to climate change – and not be forlorn or magnetized to partisan talking points, but rather retain a weather eye and a practical hope? Who can build respect, by showing respect, even in a rebuke? Mr. Shultz has spent a career seeking to do just that.

Take the example from Howard’s story in which Mr. Shultz, recognizing the power of the moment, saluted at a Soviet military graveyard, saying that these men – like him – had fought in World War II to stop Hitler. Years later, Russians still remembered that gesture.

“It teaches you that if you show respect to things that deserve it, then your criticisms of other things carry more weight instead of being just critical across the board,” he tells Howard.

Must that be a throwback? Or partisan? Have the days of the George Shultzes of the world vanished into the Twitterverse, where point-scoring and party purity often seem the highest standards for success? Mr. Shultz, for one, doesn’t think so.

Which is why he’s Mr. Shultz. And on our cover.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.