David Gergen: All Presidents' Man - Rolling Stone
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David Gergen: All Presidents’ Man

For God, for country, and for status quo

David Gergen

David Gergen

Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

There is a knack to being called. There are special angles at which the student stands out in the teacher’s field of vision; particular places where the local elders are more apt to notice an aspiring protégé; certain paths that carry the striver close by the stream of power, bringing surging waters within reach.

David Gergen has the knack. In late May, his many years of preparation were again rewarded. Bill Clinton tapped Gergen to be his White House counselor, the fourth and most powerful White House post of Gergen’s career. “I hold the old-fashioned belief,” Gergen said just after the news was announced, “that when a president asks for help, there is only one good answer: ‘How soon should I start?'”

But how does one manage to be “asked” — to stand out in a president’s cluttered field of vision? There is not so much as a hint that Gergen may have in some way positioned himself for the call. “I didn’t need this,” he says of his latest presidential appointment. In Gergen’s view, his long White House career, stretching elastically across the tenures of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, has been the result of “happenstance.”

Gergen’s smile when he says this — happenstance — is self-mocking, bordering on bashful. He is seated at a conference table in a small, spare room in the unprestigious White House basement. His temporary move to the basement, where he occupies a cramped, stuffy room formerly relegated to the barber, has been interpreted as proof of Gergen’s modesty, his ranking of duty over pride. It stands in blatant contravention to the laws of bureaucratic geography, by which proximity to the first-floor Oval Office is deemed determinative of power relations.

Gergen, whom one former colleague describes as “part Boy Scout,” is chewing hungrily on a cookie as he talks. At 51, his face is willfully boyish. It is almost 9 on a Friday night in late June, and his wife has called yet again, wondering when he will be home. Gergen casually informs an aide that before he departs, he must speak to Anthony Lake or Sandy Berger of the National Security Council. The president has ordered Baghdad bombed the next day. “One part Boy Scout,” says the old colleague, “one part Machiavelli.”

Gergen’s public career began in 1971, when a college friend arranged an interview with Nixon speechwriter Ray Price. It was then, Gergen says, that he was first “asked” to join the White House, as Price’s assistant. He rose to become chief speechwriter and stayed to the bitterest end, producing reams of white papers and speeches, justifications and rationales — an enormous and futile body of work former Nixon counsel Leonard Garment recalls under the rubric of “damage-control essays.”

By scandal’s end, Gergen had gained stature enough to merit an honorable mention in the Deep Throat competition, but he worried that his Watergate association would be ruinous. “I thought my career was at an end,” he says.

After Treasury Secretary William Simon provided bureaucratic sanctuary to the 32-year-old Nixon refugee, Gergen was soon recalled to the White House by Ford’s chief of staff, Dick Cheney. At last driven out by Jimmy Carter, Gergen was back four years later. He had been a summer soldier in the failed Bush campaign of 1980 before enlisting in the Reagan juggernaut. Gergen hadn’t intended to work in the Reagan White House, he says, but like Price and Cheney before, his mentor James Baker (Reagan chief of staff), too, “asked,” and how could he refuse? Gergen reluctantly agreed to help out for a short time, he says, but then: “Once we got into a recession in ’82, I didn’t think I could leave. They were really down. I thought I had to see that through.”

And now Clinton, too, has called. Gergen’s new posting was met with hearty applause on the Sunday-morning power shows, where social acquaintances and journalist peers cheered him on. But the move from a Republican to a Democratic White House, from Reaganism to its prescribed antidote, engendered some sniping at the fringes of the capital. Gergen’s fielding percentage as a member of the all-star Reagan infield — who could beat Deaver to Baker to Gergen? — left little room for criticism from Clinton’s embattled young staff. But there are some quaint Washingtonians for whom party politics and ideology still matter. Gergen, greatly sensitive to the capital’s breezes, clearly felt a draft. Returning a reporter’s phone call one night, he launches unbidden into an anxious defense of his three years of service to Reagan.

“I was in a role,” Gergen says, responding with urgency to a question that hasn’t even been asked. “I was in a job. I had to perform a certain type of function. To some extent, the job determines how you act.”

These are uncharacteristic words from a man renowned for press savvy and a silvery tongue, for a mastery of image that can, in the words of a former colleague, “make black seem white.” But to interpret them as evidence of cynicism is to misunderstand their source. Gergen is an ambitious and inveterate careerist, but he is not a cynic. “At the deepest level, the guy is very idealistic,” says his brother Kenneth, a highly regarded social psychologist at Swarthmore.

Indeed, Gergen is idealistic. He idealizes power and the system that parcels it. Expressed in a devotion to pragmatism and centrism, in an unwavering commitment to the system, Gergen’s idealism is the foundation of his status. Without such values and the skill to advertise them as a package with himself, Gergen would never have been asked to serve on so many occasions. He has the knack, which is to make himself a mirror and reflect the institutional values of the status quo. When Ray Price or Dick Cheney or Jim Baker or even Bill Clinton looks into Gergen’s eager gaze, each in his time sees his own reflection.

Yale is not the only institution that could have produced David Richmond Gergen in 1963. But the prevailing ethos of the college, which entered the ’60s secure in the knowledge that God, country and William F. Buckley were cast in its Gothic image, certainly improved the odds. Gergen’s class of ’63 was the last to graduate before a concatenation of explosions, beginning that November, jolted the nation out of a complacent postwar orbit. “We were pretty much the last relic of the ’50s in terms of lifestyle,” says William Hamilton, an associate dean at Wake Forest College, who was a member of Manuscript, Gergen’s senior society at Yale. (Of necessity, Manuscript considered itself more meritocratic than the Skull and Bones of George Bush.) “It was just before the dawn of social awareness,” Hamilton says.

Well, not exactly. Social awareness was highly advanced and greatly rewarded at Yale. How else to explain so many serious young men vying for social position and institutional favor, seeking to impress peers, mentors, future employers with their leadership potential? In Remembering Denny, a book devoted to musings over a gifted classmate’s failure to become, as expected, president of the United States, Calvin Trillin, Yale ’57, describes the campus pragmatism: “There was an assumption that the society was ours to lead and that preparing a leadership class made good sense.”

Gergen was among those who saw in life a natural confluence of public service and personal ambition. He grew up in semi-rural, pre-civil rights Durham, N.C., the youngest of four boys. Even in his youth he was an achiever, seeking to please his authoritarian father, who chaired the math department at Duke University, where he conducted research for the Army. “My father had these very high ideals — they were impossible,” says Kenneth Gergen. “Home was highly competitive, with four boys who were tremendously energetic and striving. The ambience was one of trying to give good reports.”

Gergen followed Kenneth and their eldest brother, John, to Yale, where he embraced the native creed: For God, for country and for Yale. “He internalized a lot of that,” says a former colleague. “He believes he has a lot to offer.” On campus, Gergen immersed himself in current events, debating them with the practiced combination of authority, sobriety and dispassion the community valued. “I never saw him lose his temper,” William Hamilton recalls. “He was just a likable, well-informed guy. He had broad knowledge of current events.”

As managing editor of the Yale Daily News, a post he accepted after graciously losing the election for chairman to a Hotchkiss boy from a well-connected family, Gergen oversaw articles on college administration and the essential ingredients of a winning football squad and an active, albeit restrained, debate over whether a Communist should speak to the political union. The paper brimmed with suggested calibrations to the status quo, all intended to make the system’s manifest good even better. “Appraisal of World Situation Reveals Basis for Optimism,” one headline pronounced. Some things could scarcely be improved. A typical editorial on Yale president A. Whitney Griswold appeared under the headline “A Great President.”

“The people around the paper saw themselves doing the trial run for similar roles in the bigger world,” says a former classmate. “They seemed to have the solemnity that comes with middle age.”

The apotheosis of this middle-aged, middle-of-the-road establishmentarianism was the son of a congressman and lobbyist, a future Rhodes scholar and senator named David Boren. A gray prodigy, Boren mastered retreats to safe rhetorical harbors and sanctimonious platitudes at a tender age. In the fall of their senior year, Gergen’s Daily News published a Boren letter addressing the ongoing crisis at the University of Mississippi, where black student James Meredith was attempting to integrate the all-white campus. Boren deplored, on the one hand, the mobs in Oxford, while on the other hand, he expressed his deep concern for the “valid constitutional question” Mississippians had raised about a state’s right to “control” education in its borders — by the exercise of state racism if need be.

Though Gergen has a sense of humor and an easy, if muted, Southern charm, he has never shed the ponderous Yale style. Three decades later, as a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, the magazine he edited after departing the Reagan Revolution in 1984, Gergen remained an avid practitioner. “One might dismiss today’s caterwauling as just another outbreak of low jinks on the Potomac,” he wrote about a spate of Clinton-bashing this spring, “were something serious not at stake.” Among such Rhodes scholars and Bonesmen, Daily News chairmen and their runner-up managing editors, a fragile world cupped in their manly hands, is there ever a time when something serious — some valid constitutional question — is not at stake?

Gergen, who has managed to befriend an uncanny number of presidential candidates, including Ross Perot, has remained generous with praise for the Griswolds of the larger world. From his columns we learn that Caspar Weinberger is “a great patriot”; George Bush “deserves much thanks”; Sen. Pete Domenici “has a reputation for honesty and courage”; Dick Cheney’s “stature grows each year”; Bill Clinton is “one of the most gifted, dedicated men ever to serve in the Oval Office.”

He can be equally solicitous of the press. When Gergen was the subject of a recent Washington Post profile, he told the reporter, who was building an addition to his house, that the added space would be necessary to hold the writer’s “growing reputation.”

Gergen works the Establishment perhaps less spectacularly than Clinton does but also more thoroughly. He has piled up establishment credentials like old sweaters in the attic, resigning from no fewer than 17 organizations when he joined the White House in June. “David is a genuine believer in institutions,” says Peggy Robinson, a producer at MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, where Gergen was a regular commentator from 1987 until his recent appointment. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, he was bumped to superelite status by membership in San Francisco’s Bohemian Grove, an intimate bonding council composed of the nation’s most powerful men.

Meanwhile, Gergen has been a repeat participant in Renaissance Weekends, the periodic networking retreats that certify Clinton’s New Age confidants as surely as PT-109 tie clips did the Kennedy circle. Renaissance gatherings bring together families of high achievers — drawn from institutions of government, academia, business and journalism — to participate in group discussions ranging from public policy to personal confession. Both the Clintons and the Gergens have attended for several years.

At last winter’s Renaissance meeting in Hilton Head, S.C., which the president-elect and Mrs. Clinton attended, Gergen was frequently seen in their company. Before an audience including the Clintons, Gergen shared his distress over the continuing ghettoization of urban America. “He gave a speech, an impassioned speech, about our cities,” recalls L. William Seidman, the former head of the FDIC who attended the retreat. “After I heard it, I said to my wife, ‘I suspect Mr. Gergen is going to end up in the administration.’ He was interested in having the president know he was interested in this. But more than anything else, it was what he really believed.”

In addition to having, as Renaissance founder Phil Lader puts it, “what we call sort of a Renaissance intellect,” Gergen is clearly at home with the Renaissance style. “He’ll drop a note or call when he has absolutely no political or social agenda,” says Lader, giving an indication of the purposefulness with which the Renaissance set routinely communes. That Gergen is facile enough to emote with the Renaissance “family” — even Gergen’s chief assistant is a Renaissancer — while simultaneously frolicking with the Grove’s cigar-choked capitalist marauders is a sign of his impressive range. He straddles competing power cultures as readily as he does political parties. He drinks Coke. He drinks Pepsi. Should Ross Perot ever capture the White House, Gergen no doubt will drink Dr Pepper, too.

Unlike his slightly younger White House peers, forever searching for the politics of meaning, Gergen’s own conflicts were not forged in the ’60s; he never faltered there on the established path to power. “He comes from that [pre-’60s] era,” says Gergen’s former U.S. News colleague Michael Barone. “David roots for America, and he roots for American leaders, in that order.”

After Yale, Gergen attended the next holy station in the church of establishmentarianism, Harvard Law School. In his three years at Harvard (1964-1967), the undercurrents of the ’60s gathered force. Gergen was conscious — and conscientious — about the changing status of race; he had spent summers interning for North Carolina’s Good Neighbor Council, a state effort to improve race relations. But Harvard easily insulated him from the emerging counterculture of skepticism and dissent. “To the extent that it touched us at all, it was peripheral,” a classmate recalls.

By the time Democrats and yippies converged on Chicago, Gergen had his Harvard diploma and a Navy commission overseas. “I missed the end of the ’60s in the U.S.,” he says. Gergen joined the Navy as an engineering damage-control officer on a ship based in Japan, where he lived onshore with his wife. On the defining issue of his generation, he sided with the Pentagon against the peaceniks. “What deeply troubled me about Vietnam,” he recalls, “is not that we were there. It’s that we weren’t winning.” To Gergen, the dilemma of Vietnam was managerial, not moral.

Even Clinton, his eye unflinchingly fixed on a political career, broke with the Establishment long enough to protest the war. But Gergen never once gave up on the system. When his Navy stint was finished, a Yale friend, the chairman of the Yale Daily News whom Gergen had befriended and roomed with at Harvard, arranged an interview for Gergen with Nixon aide Ray Price, Yale ’51. Gergen joined Nixon and the Republicans in power. He had voted for Humphrey.

The distance Gergen traveled from Humphrey to Nixon was relatively short. But it presaged his ability to make long ideological hauls, ultimately allowing him to journey from Reagan to Clinton without a conversion experience along the way. Instead, the man who scripted the ’72 Republican Convention for the last of the new Nixons maintains only that he is a moderately improved moderate. “I’m much more into class questions than I used to be,” he says. “And I think we’ve gone backwards on race since the ’60s. I’ve heard some liberals who say: ‘We’ve known this for a long time. Where the hell have you been?’ Well, that may be true. I might be awakening late in life to some of these questions.”

On the surface, Gergen’s narrative tracks. A relative liberal in the conservative Reagan administration, he becomes a relative conservative in the liberal Clinton administration. Gergen, the centrist, remains stable as the political culture pivots around him. But Gergen’s center is sometimes sorely stretched. At one end he is “into class questions,” concerned about the growing disparities between rich and poor. Simultaneously, however, he is a member of the hyperexclusive Bohemian Grove, boldly determined in its secrecy, sexism and classism.

Similarly, although Gergen lives in the elite Virginia suburb of McLean, he compensated by sending his two children to Catholic school in Washington so they would be less indulged by the environment he had worked hard to obtain. “I just hated the whole suburban scene as a way to grow up,” he says. “These high schools in Fairfax County — they’re good kids, but they all drive to school in Volvos.” It’s as if Gergen had been “asked” to live in McLean, too.

Gergen’s position in the Clinton White House is, he told the New York Times, “at the intersection of politics and policy and communications.” Having studied image building in the Reagan White House under Michael Deaver, a senior adviser, and the art of spin under the incomparable James Baker, Gergen is an acknowledged master of political communication. The simple fact of his appointment to a Democratic administration is proof of his political skill. But policy? Even with three previous administrations on his résumé, Gergen has never truly established himself in the gritty world of policy. Like the president, however, he is partial to bull sessions. “Gergen loves panels — he loves seminars,” says his friend and former MacNeil/Lehrer colleague Mark Shields.

Until his latest appointment, Gergen had been working with a study group at the Aspen Institute, hoping to foster a bipartisan consensus on domestic policy. “I think we are in desperate need of having the kind of dialogue on the domestic side that we’ve had on the foreign-policy side,” Gergen says. “We’d like to create something similar to the Council on Foreign Relations,” says the former member of the council, “only more open, less establishmentarian,” adds the Renaissance man.

Of course, without the quiet back room of elite consensus, policy work necessitates laying down markers, staking out political turf more consequential than a heartfelt desire to avoid confrontation. Gergen’s bipartisanship — his all-purpose format for policy debates — allows him to play, in effect, without vivid markers. “His style always has been to ask, ‘What do you think?'” says Leonard Garment. In the halls of power, where policy is enacted, he has mastered the art of disassociation, of being among the king’s men while denying he is of them. “I’ve always been sort of an outrider in administrations,” Gergen says.

In the midst of rabid Reaganism, Gergen represented an aloof, managerial ethic. He was working for his third successive Republican administration without ever registering as a Republican; carrying out the radical Reagan agenda without sharing radical rightwing values.

Only weeks into his latest appointment, he stresses a similar pattern. “It’s been a very difficult move for me,” he says, rolling his eyes out toward the hallways where the Clintonistas roam. “Within this strain, I’m a troglodyte at the far end of the spectrum.”

Gergen’s role is neither idea man nor true believer; he is the system’s man. He was hired less to shape Clinton’s policies or message to the country than to fix the dissonance emanating from the Beltway echo chamber. He is the president’s emissary to the Washington establishment, the elite members of Congress, the power brokers and the pundits who shape one another’s opinions and together cast the Beltway’s crucial vote on a presidency. “We were not effective in being linked to those people in Washington who help the public interpret the presidency,” says White House deputy communications director David Dreyer. “[Gergen] is definitely a link to them.”

In appointing Gergen as minister to the status quo, Clinton elevated competence over ideology, salvaging the wreck of Dukakis. Like a CEO seeking to maximize company profits, Gergen is a manager seeking to maximize presidential power. (He once told friends he was considering writing a successor volume to Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power.) He has an attraction to what he calls “strong, charismatic leaders,” a sample of whom includes Alexander Haig, whose picture hung in Gergen’s last White House office, Colin Powell, Ross Perot and William Simon. “I like people who have that extra dash of power and an inner strength about them,” he says.

A weak executive sends shivers down his spine. When the illegal diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan Contras, the most damning article of the Iran-Contra affair, came to light in November 1986, Gergen spoke on CBS of his concerns. Not for the law. Nor for the rightful powers of Congress, which had been deliberately violated by the executive. Gergen’s overriding concern was for the ultimate seat of power, the presidency.

“The first ramification,” Gergen said, “is that [Reagan] may well have such a damaged presidency that it’s going to be more difficult to govern. We could have two years of drift and deadlock, not only here in Washington but in our foreign relations. I think that’s a very real danger for the president.”

Gergen was not an apologist for the Reagan-inspired crimes. But even after having endured the unraveling of Watergate, he viewed Iran-Contra, Reaganism’s logical conclusion, as a threat to the power, authority and viability of the presidency rather than as an assault on constitutional democracy. His first instinct was to bolster the embattled executive, rather than the belittled Constitution.

This allegiance to power gives Gergen his elasticity. His ability to traverse — without a scratch — the jagged peaks of ideology is testament to his sophistication and dexterity. But also to his desire to scale the mountain of power from the most hospitable approach. And to do so, in the end, because it’s there.

“I’m proud of the service that I had the opportunity to do,” Gergen said at his inaugural press briefing. “And I think it is a privilege to serve here, no matter who the president is.” 


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