Conversation With David Gergen

October 19, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Now, another of our conversations about new books, the author is longtime NewsHour contributor David Gergen, his book is “Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership.” It’s an insider’s look at four Presidents and their leadership styles. David was a White House advisor to them all; speechwriter for Richard Nixon, special counsel for Gerald Ford, communications director for Ronald Reagan, and counselor to Bill Clinton. He’s currently a Professor of Public Service at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is editor at large at U.S. News and World Report. I spoke with him last month. Welcome back, David.

DAVID GERGEN: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: The subtitle of this book is “The Essence of Leadership.” Of the four men you worked for, who was the best leader?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, each man had strengths and weaknesses, but I would have to say that if you looked for leadership alone– and you may disagree with this philosophy– but Ronald Reagan really was the best leader. In fact, I think he was the best leader in the presidency since Franklin Roosevelt, and Roosevelt was the master. He was the best leader of the 20th century and the presidency by all accounts.

MARGARET WARNER: But what qualities were there in Reagan that made him…

DAVID GERGEN: It’s interesting, you know. He grew up in the FDR era. And in fact, Ronald Reagan voted for Franklin Roosevelt four times. That’s a real shock to a lot of people. But he learned a lot about leadership from Roosevelt– not just the cadences and the way he spoke to people– but he picked up some of Roosevelt’s contagious optimism about the country. He had a real sense of what this country could accomplish. But he also had something very special, and it was like Roosevelt again. He knew himself; he was well centered. He wasn’t just comfortable in who he was; he was serene. And he related extraordinarily well to other people, especially to a listening audience. And that, I think, brought people with him, and it really changed a lot of things in the country as a result. You might disagree with what he changed, but you have to say he brought the change.

MARGARET WARNER: He did it effectively.


MARGARET WARNER: A big part of your book also concerns leadership within the White House, or the leadership of the White House, and you were a very young speechwriter, of course, in the Nixon era. But what did you see inside the White House that you… and you wrote some… I don’t have the exact quote here, but you said it really made said the scandal of Watergate almost inevitable.

DAVID GERGEN: There was, in effect, a reign of fear. I felt this as a young kid coming down from the top. You were not supposed to question anything. You were supposed to, you know, blind obedience to the people on top of the order. You weren’t supposed to question anything. And if they made you… wanted you to jump, you did that. But there was this sort of sense that the way you play politics is by dirty politics. If they’re going to do it, do it to them before they do it to us. So there was a sense… I think the lesson out of it to me was that each President shapes his own staff and the spirit of the President. If the President is insecure and paranoid, that paranoia is going to spread out to the staff. If the President won’t tell the truth to his staff, the staff won’t tell the truth to the public.

MARGARET WARNER: Warner: All right. So take that standard and turn to Clinton White House —


MARGARET WARNER: — which you joined as a Republican in a Democratic administration and answer the question you posed, which was, “how did he get so much right and still get so much wrong?” — if you had to sum it up…

DAVID GERGEN: The smartest man we’ve had in the office since Nixon, I think; the best tactician, better tactician, but not the same… but not as good as strategist, but the best tactician; an enormous amount of energy and resilience. He had… and I think he had a certain amount of courage. All of those things helped him make a lot of things right. And but at the same time, he did have these flaws in his character and I think he didn’t plan out his presidency in the way that he would bring in people. He shouldn’t have ever been in a position to reach out to someone like me. Right from the beginning they should have brought in the Carter folks.

MARGARET WARNER: You wrote that you saw the seeds, even though you weren’t in the transition, you think in retrospect that not enough attention has been paid to that 11-week period, and that you saw the seeds of a lot of these problems right then.

DAVID GERGEN: I do. I think that the transition is a very, very misunderstood period. It is “the” most crucial period for a President after he’s elected — as important as the first 100 days — to settle down and get your plan right; know where you’re trying to go as President; know what that’s all about, to plan out those first 100 days in a very meticulous way; to get your staff straight. And Bill Clinton paid a lot of attention to his cabinet, but he paid almost zero attention to the other White House staff, which as a result he brought some wonderfully talented people from his campaign– George Stephanopoulos, Dee Dee Myers, Gene Sperling, wonderfully talented, but he needed to seed into that group some of the veterans from the past… of the past Democratic administration, and he got no rest. He was exhausted, Margaret, when he came in as President. I came into the administration, as you remember, about six months into it, and the Bill Clinton I found there was totally different from the man I had known for ten years. And that was he was frazzled, he was exhausted, and he had lost his self-confidence. And his recovery came not because his staff did it, but because people in his staff and his wife tried to create a safe space around him and let him do it himself.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s another recurrent theme in your whole Clinton chapter, and that concerns the relationship between the President and the First Lady and her role. And I think your phrase was it was a very nourishing, but dangerous one. Explain that.


MARGARET WARNER: Dangerous to him and his…

DAVID GERGEN: Yes, a couple of things. They support each other very, very well when they’re in balance. She’s the anchor and he’s the sail. She’s the strategist, he’s the tactician. She’s centered, she’s rooted and he’s up there… you know, he’s all over the place. But they compliment each other very well. He understands politics a lot better than she does and he helps her with her politics. So they nourish each other in that sense. But there were two things that were dangerous about it. One is they tried a co- presidency, and that simply does not work in that office. This office demands very fast decision-making, and it demands only one person to be President at a time. And that didn’t work, as we saw in health care. But the other thing about their relationship was, that I would like to think of it – it’s like a see- saw. And when they were in balance… when they were in balance with each other personally, it worked very well. They were nourishing. But if they got out of balance, if one went up and the other went down, each needed the other’s help. Each needed to be tethered by the other. And on health care, he was down at the time the health care fight was going. I happen to believe– maybe I’m wrong– that when the Troopergate story came out in late…

MARGARET WARNER: It was December ’93.

DAVID GERGEN: …It was late 1993. That was so humiliating for her publicly that he went into the doghouse and he went down on the seesaw, and she went up; and he lost his capacity to really guide that health care policy after that. I never saw him step in and really try health care after that, because I felt…

MARGARET WARNER: You say, “you’re being unrealistic here, or this is not going to work.”

DAVID GERGEN: Right. And his political antenna are so much better. You know, he’s wonderful at that; that if his political antenna had been at work, I think they had a better chance of getting it through because he was down… I think he was in a one-down situation with that first one. By contrast, after the 1994 elections, when they had been blown out of the water and health care had been down, had been defeated, the seesaw went the other way. She went down and he went up. Dick Morris came in. His fortune started to go up. She was down, and along comes Miss Monica. And he gets into trouble. I think if they had been in better balance, maybe it never would have happened.

MARGARET WARNER: One of the things, though, that you point to about the Clinton White House is the degree to which spinning, and essentially misleading the press and the public and Congress and everyone else became just a way of life. Yet you acknowledged, you were the author of so-called spin patrols in the Reagan White House. Are you really surprised that it’s… what was the difference in your mind between what you did then and what the Clinton White House was doing, and are you surprised it evolved?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, for starters, stagecraft has always been an essential part of state craft. Go right back to the beginning days of the republic. George Washington loved the theater and he could be quite theatrical in a way, and so did Abraham Lincoln and all of our best Presidents have done that. So I think that the notion that promoting a President as we did with Reagan was quite legitimate.

What the spin patrol really was, was around 5:00 in the afternoon I would call the reporters from each one of the networks, you know, Lesley Stahl and or Sam Donaldson or Andrea Mitchell, or what have you, and say, “where are you in your story today?”

And they were just getting ready to file, and I would talk to them the last minute just before they went on the air. And if they had a hole in their story, I could fill it in, but I could give them our sense of what the reality was. If they wanted to reject that, that’s fine. That, to me, was perfectly legitimate and fair. What I regret most about my time there was that I think that helped open the door. People said, “well, look at the Reagan White House.

They were so successful in their promotion policy, their communications policies. Why don’t we just keep building on that? And I think what it has led to now is we’ve completely departed from the sense that the government is responsible for telling the truth; that people in government have to be candid; they have to be accountable.

You have to be willing to admit when you make a mistake. And I think we’ve now gotten to the point that it’s not just the Clinton administration. It has evolved over time. I deeply regret the way that we now are in a situation in which for many people in government, they think the lesson of the past is that truth is whatever you can get away with, whatever you can say that reporters will be gullible enough to accept or the public may accept. And that, I think, is an unethical approach to government. I think morality in government demands first and foremost that you describe reality accurately, candidly, and fairly.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thanks, David, very much.

DAVID GERGEN: Thanks, Margaret.