The view from the middle
By MARGO HAMMOND
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000
David Gergen does Will Rogers one better: He never met a president he didn't like.
Serving as a senior adviser to four of them -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- David Gergen, astonishingly, has a good word to say about them all. In fact, he actually finds qualities to admire in each of them.
I know that's hard to fathom for those of us who have a visceral reaction at the mere mention of at least one name on that list. To most of us, the idea that all of them might have some measure of greatness seems preposterous. These men, after all, even those who share the same party label, are worlds apart in political convictions, modus operandi and character. But, like the affable Will Rogers, Gergen is maddeningly even-handed.
Gergen doesn't gloss over the differences among the men he served, but he isn't blinded by some partisan need to cast one or the other as the devil incarnate or the great white hope. In Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton, a unique blend of memoir and commentary, he takes on his old bosses, one by one, explaining to us how he came to work for them and what he learned through that close proximity. What he learned, that is, about what made each of them a good leader and even, in some cases, a great leader.
Politically, as far as I can tell, Gergen himself is at the extreme center. He admits he voted for Hubert Humphrey, not Nixon, in 1968 and Bill Clinton, not George Bush, in 1992. In between, he stuck with the Republican ticket. When he worked in the Nixon White House, he was at odds with Nixon's more conservative advisers, such as Pat Buchanan. Then when he joined up with Ford, he found himself under suspicion as a Nixon holdover. Under Reagan, he became the annoying moderate in a sea of conservatives. Under Clinton, he was the annoying conservative.
From the center, of course, it is easy to look both right and left, and it is from that vantage point that Gergen is able to offer a remarkably balanced portrait of these four presidents, whom the rest of us have too often seen in one-dimensional terms.
Not that he isn't prone to superlatives. Nixon, Gergen writes, was "the most fascinating man I have met in thirty years of public life."
"Emotionally . . . the healthiest president we have had since Eisenhower and Truman," Ford assembled the "finest Cabinet in the past thirty years."
Reagan was the "best leader in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt."
Clinton not only is "the most talented politician of his generation," but also has "the firmest, most subtle grasp of public policy of any president I have known, including Nixon.. . . One probably needs to go back to Woodrow Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt for parallels."
But in every case,Gergen's positive superlatives immediately are leavened with pointed criticisms.
Nixon was fascinating but unfathomable to those around him.
Reagan may have been an extraordinary leader, but he had "less curiosity about public policy than any president since perhaps the 1920s" and "depended too much on staff for day-to-day operations."
Ford was "comfortable with himself," but didn't impose any discipline on his staff.
Clinton is charming, but he also has a colossal temper. Gergen compares it to "Mount Vesuvius erupting."
In assessing these men, however, Gergen is not as interested in their quirky personalities -- they all have strengths and flaws, he says -- as he is in how those personalities served them in a leadership role. The actions of all four of them, according to Gergen, can teach future politicians what to do -- and what not to do -- if they aspire to great leadership.
Sometimes the lessons Gergen draws from these administrations are breathtakingly simple -- and I mean that as the highest of compliments. He wisely attributes Reagan's early successes, for example, to his "Early Action Plan." Reagan, he writes, "wasted no time getting ready for the presidency."
Clinton, on the other hand, squandered his transition period, Gergen rightly points out. First, Clinton failed to put together a team that could govern, says Gergen. Unwisely he chose his top staff almost entirely from his campaign team rather than mixing in, as Reagan did, some Washington veterans.
Second, Clinton failed to make elaborate plans for his first weeks in office and to mobilize congressional support behind him. He virtually snubbed the Republican minority, a fatal mistake, and gave his Democratic majority the impression that he was "a man who can be rolled," says Gergen.
But worst of all, Clinton failed to get enough sleep before taking the oath of office in January.
"It may seem odd that so much can turn on a president's sleep. But history and research have repeatedly shown that fitness and stamina are the hidden ingredients of leadership," writes Gergen. "Especially in high office, a person must exercise judgment that is finely tuned."
Presidents can also make the grave mistake of overreacting to the past, says Gergen. The people in the Ford White House, for example, were so eager to eradicate anything associated with Nixon that they often threw out the good with the bad (Are you taking notes Al and George?). As a result, Ford rejected many of Nixon's sound organizational structures (a strong chief of staff, for example) in favor of a more diffused, and ultimately less efficient, management team. "Within the staff, lines of authority should run up and down. They shouldn't run sideways, in a circle, or look like a plate of spaghetti," he writes.
Okay, these may seem like awfully wonky suggestions to make to future leaders of the free world. Gergen also does touch on some of the loftier qualities needed for great leadership: self-mastery, the ability to inspire others and that vision thing. But whether the next president remembers to "hit the ground running" and to "use the occasional prop" (one of Gergen's proffered "tricks of the speech trade") may well in the end prove to be even more important ingredients for a successful presidency.
The first hundred days of a presidency, after all, have always been crucial, as the Clintons painfully learned. And future occupants of the White House will be required more and more to win over an increasingly plugged in and visually oriented citizenry.
I hope, though, that many of us also get around to reading Gergen's book. For in addition to offering lessons for our leaders, Gergen also provides valuable lessons in good citizenry. "Our culture is too quick to tear down our presidents once they are in office," he warns. "All of the six men I have known in the office -- from Nixon to Clinton -- have been patriots who cared deeply about the fate of the country. Several of them made terrible blunders, but they all struggled and fought to create a better world."
Will Rogers couldn't have said it better.
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