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The imperturbable Mr. Shultz

It's a big room, the ceiling is 40 feet high and it's crammed, of course, because Secretary of State George P. Shultz is giving the first on-the-record testimony on the new administration Middle East diplomatic initiative. Looking down on him is a double tier of congressmen with the committee chairman in the middle. Down in the press seats I am surrounded by reporters from assorted world journals who wait for an official text.

There is the customary fumbling and adjusting of microphones. A couple of squawks and then a whine. There is only one pooled cameraman, fortunately, and the still photographers take their snaps quickly and retire. There is one parliamentary gadget just before Mr. Shultz's place, a trio of electric bulbs that signal the alloted time for committee questioners. Nobody pays attention to it; it is a big committee and the members are theoretically limited to one question each in the opening time (blue); after that the warning goes on (yellow), and the final one is red. Most of the questioners, I notice, get over to the yellow zone, and a couple haven't even finished their first question and remarks before the red is already blinking.

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Here come the texts for the press now: They are passed out at the press tables and down the aisles where extra reporters sit. Funny how reporters can sense the high points of a text by feeling it: Here is a quotable passage; here is a headline, maybe! In this case it is generally low-key and informative, like Mr. Shultz himself. He starts off by appealing for ''positive, bipartisan support for President Reagan's peace initiative.'' He ends (12 pages later):

''I pledge to you that we will be exercising the creativity, the persistence, and the dogged determination to succeed which marked the successful effort in Beirut. . . That goal can hardly be accomplished in a few short weeks. . . We believe, deeply and purposefully, that peace can come between Arabs and Jews. . .''

The committee questions are sympathetic and nonabrasive, like Mr. Shultz. Members express appreciation for being taken into his confidence. He is appearing voluntarily; he is telling them that they know almost as much about the circumstances of the peace adventure as he does.

This is the most important diplomatic undertaking that President Reagan has made; it was unexpected and in many ways startling. It is not in character with the cautious, suspicious, and rather reluctant tone of the Reagan administration up till now. I heard President Reagan talk to Parliament the other day in Westminster; he did very well, I thought; it was low-keyed and graceful with the obvious theme of trying to deal with the Russians, but there was little that was new in it. Now Mr. Reagan has a new secretary of state. Is it just a concidence that the dramatic Middle East peace initiatives have come with Mr. Shultz?

Who is he, anyway? Well, he was born in New York City in 1920 and was halfback at Princeton where he graduated cum laude in 1942. Following that he was in the Marines in the Pacific where he entered as a private and emerged as major. Then came more academic training and he was dean at the business school at the University of Chicago, running panels on the side for labor-management disputes.

You can see how his low-keyed, reasonable approach would be disarming. Mr. Nixon made him secretary of labor; then he became the first director of the new budget bureau, and after that secretary of the treasury in 1972. Out of government again he was for a while head of the Bechtel Corporation, the California-based engineering firm that has been a recruiting ground for Republican appointments. President Ford brought him back to help planning for an economic summit, and now he is running the State Department for Mr. Reagan.

You can sense a feeling in the room that they like quiet Mr. Shultz, who is confident without being brash. A close friend, economist Milton Friedman, described him once: ''George is a man of principle but not an ideologue. His forte is not in abstract academic analysis but in problem solving. He is an operator but not in any invidious sense. He has tried to achieve practical, feasible results. In the Washington atmosphere it's hard to keep perspective, but I think that George has kept it better than most.''

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Secretary Shultz is telling them now, ''I think there is a reasonable chance for peace.'' (Later in New York he will say that the Middle East is at a ''moment of unprecedented opportunity'' for peace). Peace in the Middle East? It seems impossible. In front of him the Christmas-tree gadget turns from blue to yellow to red as the sympathetic questioners take turns. He goes on imperturbably with a touch of humor and repeats the performance later over on the Senate side. How about the new key Arab peace proposals? He says hopefully there is a chance for a ''breakthrough.'' Are Arab states offering a formula that implies recognition of Israel? He urges patience: the critical feature is whether he can get ''the right people'' to come in and sit down together.

Mr. Shultz is back at his earliest professional chore, trying to resolve labor-management disputes. Only this time it is not private parties, it is government. Can he do it before the light flashes red?

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