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Book Review

Insights From a Consigliere to Five U.S. Presidents

EYEWITNESS TO POWER, The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton, by David Gergen

Simon & Schuster, $26, 364 pages

August 18, 2000|JONATHAN S. SHAPIRO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I was single, Mother told me she preferred I bring home a smoker, a divorcee or even a man before I showed up with a Republican. We are a Democratic family. Voting GOP is akin to rooting for the Wehrmacht in battle. Politics is not, as Tip O'Neil said, local. To us, it is personal. There are sides. You pick one. You stick with it.

So in 1992, when Bill Clinton appointed David Gergen as a chief advisor, we were outraged. How could Clinton ask a former Nixon, Ford and Reagan aide to serve in the White House? And how could Gergen, a campaign aide to George Bush, accept?

In "Eyewitness to Power," Gergen explains what lay behind one of the most cynical appointments in recent political history. A scant 19 weeks into the administration, Clinton and his band of advisors were in total disarray. They dithered through transition, squandered the opportunity to make much of the first 100 days and blew their first policy initiatives, including the ill-fated gays-in-the-military muddle. After the denizens of the War Room, so effective during the campaign, alienated the press through a series of errors, Clinton was forced to beg Gergen to become, in essence, the country's First Adult.

Gergen concedes that as an advisor he was dead on arrival. Staffers within the White House, and ultimately, Hillary Rodham Clinton, viewed Gergen as a closet conservative. As a bridge to Republicans, Gergen was even more of a failure. Bob Dole and George Bush, who had previously questioned Gergen's commitment to their cause, now felt confirmed in the view that, at best, Gergen lacked political principle, and at worst, was a complete sellout.

But that was beside the point. "When Bill Clinton is in trouble, he looks for a quick fix," Gergen writes. "I know I was one of them." Having worked as an image maker for three Republican presidents, Gergen knew he was providing Clinton with a patina of professionalism, instant gravitas. Gergen performed his greatest service to the Clinton presidency simply by agreeing to serve. The announcement of his appointment allowed Clinton to create one of the more memorable visuals of the first term--the 6-foot-6-inch Gergen, a balding grown-up, towering over the man he replaced, the diminutive George Stephanopoulos. The image was clear. The torch had been passed to someone who knew what the hell he was doing.

Best known as a regular commentator on "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," Gergen appears here as the acceptable face of banality in power: an avuncular and charming fellow, slightly naive, with a disposition as mild as his principles and a style as benign as his politics--proof that an ambitious man can go far in politics by seeming inoffensive.

But dismissing Gergen as a sort of educated Chauncey Gardiner is unfair and inaccurate. Five American presidents did not hire Gergen because he is nice. They relied on him to create an acceptable public message. Toward this end, Gergen lent his skills as speech writer, communications director and media advisor to the business of managing, shaping and leaking the news to serve his many masters. His gift was to remember that American politics is won in the middle; his talent was to sell moderation to a polity eager to buy it. More practical than courageous, Gergen deserves credit--and blame--for spoon-feeding the American public much presidential pap over the years.

Gergen spins his own centrist credentials, noting that he was never as conservative as Reagan nor as liberal as Clinton, never as muddled as Ford nor as bull-goose loony as Nixon. A reporter when not in government, Gergen seems to have shed his journalistic instincts when he entered the White House. Though he worked for Nixon for three and a half years, he claims to have known nothing of the Watergate cover-up, the secret bombings of Cambodia, the taping system or Nixon's anti-Semitism. Similarly he professes to have known nothing of Reagan's Irangate or Clinton's extramarital dalliances. Such ignorance might be mistaken for loyalty. Yet Gergen is quick to nail each president for things he cannot be blamed for: Nixon's paranoia, Ford's political clumsiness, Reagan's inattention to detail, Clinton's volcanic temper. In trying to appear as an objective observer, he manages merely to appear selective.

Still, Gergen has much to say on the nature of presidential leadership. He provides ample evidence that, like the characters in "The Wizard of Oz," each of the presidents he served lacked some inherent quality. Nixon lacked perspective. Ford lacked direction. Clinton lacked discipline. Reagan lacked depth. And Gergen is certainly onto something when he observes that the process of seeking and obtaining the presidency often warps the successful candidate.

But one mystery remains. What does Gergen stand for? He advocates nonpartisanship. But that is an oxymoron. American politics was adversarial long before Hamilton ever drew down on Burr. Perhaps the key to Gergen's principles is revealed through the many nice things he says about Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Does Gergen dream of returning to the White House? Perhaps a better title for his book would be "All the Presidents' Man," since it conveys his willingness to serve any political figure--but even more apt might be "Bland Ambition."

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