- CNN senior political analyst
- Director of Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership
- Chair, Elon University School of Law Advisory Board
David Gergen has personal experience with the shortcomings of Washington and the gridlock of partisan politics. He recalled his days as adviser to four presidents and joked about the speeches he wrote for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford declaring America’s vow to achieve energy independence.
“At the time, we were 30 percent dependent on foreign oil. Today we are 60 percent dependent on foreign oil. The speeches were really effective. I’m really proud of the contributions I’ve made to public life,” Gergen said with a good dose of sarcasm.
As CNN’s senior political analyst and director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership, Gergen has a ringside seat to the daily triumphs and failures of leadership.
“We face a tough future, and what it’s going to require are a lot more people who put the good of the country first,” Gergen said. “We have too many people in Washington and around the country who think of themselves as strong Democrats or strong Republicans first and foremost, and the country is secondary.”
Gergen told Elon students their generation must get involved, and noted that both Levin and Patel were doing outstanding work in their early 20s.
“These are your role models for dropping into the arena early. Don’t wait. And finally, you have to remember that it takes a long time – it is hard work.”
Our country is facing some pretty serious domestic challenges today. Do you think we have the collective will to solve these problems?
It’s not clear, is it? I have felt for a long time that we were not taking the problems seriously. We kept kicking the can down the road. I retained a hope that America, if the problems become large enough and urgent enough, will respond. There’s an economist who once said in Washington that, “Americans are not very good when termites are in the basement, but we’re very good when we have a wolf at the door.” I think we’ve seen that on several occasions. We responded well when we were under attack on 9/11. We responded well during Hurricane Katrina, people really wanted to help New Orleans. People come together in those moments. Gabby Giffords gets shot and we all pull together.
But the energy crisis that has been creeping up on us, that goes back now almost 40 years. I was there in the White House, wrote some of the early speeches for President Nixon and President Ford, declaring what our goal was. We declared, by golly we’re going to get there – to make America energy independent. Energy independence was our vow. About that time we were about 30 percent dependent on foreign oil, today we’re about 60 percent dependent on foreign oil. I’m very proud of what I’ve contributed to public life through those speeches. I think it's, unfortunately it's typical, it's not atypical.
We’ve seen the same thing in public education. I was there in 1982-83 when President Reagan got a report from a bi-partisan commission that was the first to ring the alarm bells on the state of public education. It said there was a rising tide of mediocrity sweeping across our schools. So he went out and barnstormed the country for educational reform. A whole lot of governors went to the batter’s cage for educational reform, people like Jim Hunt of North Carolina and Bill Clinton in Arkansas, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, John Engler in Michigan, both Democrats and Republicans. And here we are today, almost 30 years later, and we really haven’t solved the problem. The dropout rate in some parts of the country is higher now than it was then, and the test scores are lower than our international competitors’. Our competitors on education are streaking ahead of us. We really have to see ourselves embedded in a global economy now. Our domestic challenges are within the context of that global economy.
You’ve been part of four presidential administrations. You’ve been watching Washington and Congress for four decades. How are leadership challenges in D.C. different today as compared to when you first arrived on the scene?
Well one of the big differences to my way of thinking is when I first arrived, the people governing the country were what was called the World War II generation. They were largely men and women who had lived through the war. Most of them had served in uniform. We had seven presidents in a row from John F. Kennedy through George H.W. Bush who wore a military uniform. Six were in the war. Only Jimmy Carter was not; he was in the Naval Academy when the war ended, and then he went on to serve honorably. I think they brought a certain kind of philosophy, an attitude toward public life. Of course, they were strong Democrats and strong Republicans, but they saw themselves first and foremost as strong Americans. With the passage of the World War II generation, a new generation has come to power that does not share that sense of common sacrifice. Very few people in our generation sacrificed when they were young. They didn’t have to do anything for the nation and they don’t have this overriding sense that the nation should come first. The well-being of the nation should come first.
In politics, is winning often more important than solving the country’s problems?
Absolutely. It is a sort of king of the mountain kind of environment, in which his loss is my gain. He gets defeated – I win. I just remember so well when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Tip O’Neill was Speaker of the House. They were both strong partisans, and had very deep philosophical differences and ideological differences that match anything we see today. But they also had a capacity, at five o’clock in the afternoon, to put down their differences and lift up a glass and enjoy each other’s company. They developed a mutual respect, so they got things done.
We have this big issue of Social Security today. It shouldn’t be a hard problem to solve. With Tip and Reagan there, with very strong philosophical differences, they put together a bi-partisan effort in 1983 and we got it done. We got Social Security reform done. We can do it again today, but the atmospherics are hard.
Considering the issues facing President Obama and our nation right now, what challenge do you think has the greatest likelihood of developing into a serious crisis for the United States?
I don’t envy the President. I have a lot of sympathy for him, actually. He’s had the biggest in-box of any president I can remember. He just inherited a very rough set of problems. Then to top it off, he’s had these new issues in the Middle East – very complicated to figure out. You’ve got so many countries that are in turmoil and you want to support the democratic horses, and yet you’ve got to be careful how you do it. You have to be sympathetic to him. All of us want him to succeed, whether you agree or disagree, it’s important for our presidents to succeed.
There are two issues that are in crisis. The near-term crisis is that we’re slipping into a debt crisis. There are a variety of studies that tell us this, particularly one that is well respected by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart. Rogoff is at Harvard and Reinhart is at the University of Maryland, and they’ve looked at financial crises going back 700 years. They make the argument that if you allow your total public debt, your total government debt, to exceed 90 percent of your GDP, the annual size of your economy, almost inevitably it slows down your economic growth. We are now well over 100 percent in the United States. Only once since records have been kept since 1916 have we ever gotten this high. It is clearly dampening our economic growth and it’s going to get worse. That’s why to me the near-term issue is the debt.
The long-term issue goes back to educational reform. We have to make sure our kids can compete in a 21st century economy. Other countries are taking this very, very seriously. One of the reasons we were such a powerful nation in the 20th century is that we entered the the century as the most educated nation on earth. We had the highest percentage of people going to college of any nation on earth. We maintained that lead right up until the 1970s. We’ve now dropped back to 15th or so. The state of Massachussetts is the highest performing state in the country right now in terms of schools, and I’m sad to say that North Carolina is in the middle. I do think that is one of the biggest challenges North Carolina faces, given the fact that we’ve got these wonderful universities here. We have a very strong professional class here, we’ve got a very entrepreneurial community. I think this state has an enormous amount of promise. But critical to the future of North Carolina is dealing with K-12 education.
David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has served as adviser to four U.S. presidents. He is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and the director of its Center for Public Leadership. He also chairs the Elon University School of Law Advisory Board. Gergen joined the White House in 1971 as a staff assistant on the speechwriting team of President Richard Nixon. Two years later he took over as director. He went on to become the director of communications for Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan; a counselor on domestic and foreign affairs for Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher; and an adviser to the 1980 George H.W. Bush presidential campaign. In 2000 he published the best-selling book, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton, which offers a behind-the-scenes account of six presidencies.