Former presidential adviser David Gergen discusses leadership and the next generation

David Gergen is known to many PBS NewsHour NewsHour viewers as a long time commentator on the program. But he is perhaps best known for his role serving as an adviser to four American presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike. Judy Woodruff spoke to Gergen this week about his new book, "Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made."

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Gergen is known to many viewers of this program as a longtime Friday night commentator on the "NewsHour," but he's perhaps best known for his role serving as a senior adviser to four American presidents, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

    I spoke with David earlier this week about his new book, "Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders are Made."

    David Gergen, welcome to the "NewsHour." And congratulations on the book.

    There is a lot to ask you about here, your advice for young people.

    But I want to get to the headline, which is telling older people essentially to get out of the way.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, you actually say it's time for people driving the bus to return the keys.

    David Gergen, Author, "Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders are Made": Well, I believe that.

    But, first of all, Judy, thank you. I feel very much like I'm coming home, being with you like this.

    Listen, I think that it's very clear now that the generation that was ruling a couple of generations ago, the World War II generation, did a terrific job. We will always look back at them as sort of the role model, the gold standard.

    They gave the baton to the Baby Boom population, to the generation, many of them being the parents of the Baby Boomers, obviously. And, frankly, as there are many good people who are Baby Boomers, there are very fine public servants, but, as a whole, the generation has been a disappointment, by contrast to the World War II generation, which left behind an America that was the strongest since the days of ancient Rome, culturally, militarily, economically.

    Contrast that with the legacy of the Baby Boomers, crisis upon crisis that we haven't solved, actions we haven't taken. We — and there's a real growing sense now that the path we're on is unsustainable, and we have to get back to being strong, like the World War II generation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what would that mean for the two men who are the most powerful in our country right now, President Biden…

  • David Gergen:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … and former President Donald Trump, who is, by all accounts, likely to challenge him?

  • David Gergen:

    Well, I do think that, as much as we don't like to talk about age, age is an issue if those are the two nominees, because we would have Biden and Trump.

    One of the men would win. And that winner would be becoming president with what is the hardest job in the world with health that is just unreliable and a vulnerability that is out there and potential weaknesses.

    I think it's inappropriate. And I think people like Biden and Trump ought to both step back and leave open the door to younger people from the next generations to serve as president.

    We just can't take the risks that are involved, and especially on health.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we should say, President Biden is 79.

  • David Gergen:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former President Trump is 75.

    If they did step aside, David Gergen, there would be a free-for-all…

  • David Gergen:

    There would be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … in each political party.

    You could be looking — there are any number of scenarios, but you could be looking at a match, say, between the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, and, say, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

  • David Gergen:

    Well, of course.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What would that look…

  • David Gergen:

    You know, it may sound unfair to say Biden or Trump ought to both step back. But I think, for the good of the country, that's what's needed.

    And, by the way, it would be healthy if we have donnybrook among a number of different candidates with different perspectives. We should welcome diversity in our politics. So, I don't think we ought to be afraid of it. I think we ought to see it as something that's appropriate in a democracy, when this is one of the best — the office of the presidency is the most complex, but yet the most powerful.

    And it requires a keen sense of judgment. And you — I just turned 80. And I can just — I can tell you, you lose your — you lose a step. You're not as sharp. You are more forgetful. You're not quite sure where you're going. You can't — that's too old to be in the presidency.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's apply this to the Congress.

  • David Gergen:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi…

  • David Gergen:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … is 80 years old.

  • David Gergen:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But she shows no signs of slowing down.

  • David Gergen:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In fact, she's given credit right now for holding her party together in ways that members of Congress say there are few others who could do that.

    Would it be better for her to step aside, even if you didn't know who could take over the Democratic Party right now in the House?

  • David Gergen:

    Well, you remember, a couple of years ago, she said she was going to step down now, and she wasn't afraid of it. She's been a little less obvious since then about what her intentions are.

    But both she and Senator McConnell, who is also 80 years old, I think it's important that people not be clinging to power, but yet trying to nourish and improve and help the younger generations. And we have some splendid people in those younger generations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, if it — even — you're saying, even if it leaves chaos…

  • David Gergen:

    I don't think it leaves chaos.

    I think — I think it's an orderly transition to some — to the next generation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you look around the country today, who do you see as potential leaders of promise?

  • David Gergen:

    Sure. Thank you.

    I think there are two streams of people that I see. One is made up of veterans who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. And I have been involved in efforts to persuade some of them to run for office on both sides of the aisle. And that is beginning to take hold. There are some wonderful people now in the Congress.

    Some of them are going to be vulnerable in this midterm election because they do come from purple districts. And so we will have to see what happens. But I think, overall, they impress me so much. They're just like the World War II generation. I just — I'm a big, big fan of some of them.

    They're not all terrific. There are a lot of people who are millennials who are seen as arrogant and difficult and just — they act as if they're entitled.

    But there's another stream I want to mention, Judy, which is less noticed. And that is people of color, who are — I think are coming together, especially Black women. They have taken the moral high ground, and they — with the MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter.

    I don't agree with their politics. They are to the left of me. But I celebrate the fact that they're out there in the arena working for change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question, David Gergen.

  • David Gergen:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How many of these Baby Boomers and even Silent Generation, like President Biden, do you expect are going to take your advice?

  • David Gergen:

    Oh, I'm sure there will be resistance. I have no doubt about that.

    You got to plant a seed and raise the question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The book is "Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders are Made."

    David Gergen, thank you.

  • David Gergen:

    Judy, thank you.

Listen to this Segment