Presidential Speechwriter Gergen to Give Speech of His Own at HLS
David R. Gergen is a political anomaly.
In Washington, a city where one's identity is determined by party affiliation, he has been able to transcend--and perhaps defy--political boundaries, working for both Republicans and Democrats alike.
"There are pivotal people in every administration to who work flows," said Roger B. Porter, IBM professor of business and government at the JFK School of Government. "David Gergen has consistently been one of those most sought-after figures."
The former adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton describes himself as a "moderate pro-free market and pro-safety net thinker."
"I tend to be very hawkish on foreign policy while being very committed to social change at home," he says.
Although Gergen is said to be registered as an Independent, he acknowledges the difficulty in crossing party lines for political employment.
"Some of my conservative friends think I'm way too liberal on domestic issues," he says.
Whichever way he leans in terms of political issues, Gergen's work experiences, including writing for U.S. News and World Report, teaching at Duke University and serving as a State Department operative, show him to be a veritable jack-of-all-trades.
He is currently a weekly commentator on the "Newshour with Jim Lehrer."
An 11,000-word feature story in the New York Times Magazine described Gergen's career as "the triumph of image." As he bounced from government service, to political commentary, to teaching and back again he was said to have "conflated all the old distinctions" of what it means to be a public servant.
Indeed, his various jobs have served him well. In 1993, when President Clinton announced Gergen's appointment to his administration, financial documents revealed that Gergen had made more than $1 million in the preceding 18 months.
Gergen, a 1967 Harvard Law School (HLS) graduate will return to his alma mater today to deliver the Class Day address from the steps of Langdell Hall, the school's recently renovated main library. For once, his journey will be a short one. This spring, Gergen became a public service professor at the Kennedy School of Government.
The Consummate Insider
Despite his law degree, the former Yale undergraduate has had a career that has steered away from actual law practice.
Following his graduation from HLS, Gergen served in the Navy for three and a half years, stationed for much of that time on a ship homeported in Japan.
"After leaving the Navy, I thought I would be going home," he says, referring to his North Carolina birthplace.
He never made it back.
After spending the last year of his tour of duty stationed in Washington, in 1971 he took a job in the Nixon administration.
"I wound up almost by serendipity working for the Nixon administration as assistant to head of the speechwriting shop."
Being the rookie in an administration that quickly became mired in the Watergate controversy proved to be a formative experience for the young Gergen. By working for a President obsessed with his public image, he was able to learn a great deal about the changing relationship between the presidency and the press.
In 1973, after a series of personnel changes at the White House, Gergen found himself promoted to head the speechwriting department, a post he held until Nixon's resignation in August of 1974.
It was during this period that Gergen was nicknamed "the Sieve" for his willingness to leak details to the press. Gergen later acknowledged that he was a source for the account written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the days preceding Nixon's resignation.
The Watergate storm baptized Gergen into political life, along the way teaching him how to stay afloat inside the Beltway. Most importantly, Gergen learned the value of increased control over the relationship between the presidency and the press. And apparently, he learned it better than most.
Since the end of the Nixon administration, numerous politicians have sought Gergen's advice.
In 1975, Gergen was selected by Gerald Ford to serve as the director of communications. After Ford's defeat in 1976, Gergen left politics for journalism, eventually becoming managing editor of the conservative American Enterprise Insititute's monthly magazine.
Gergen jumped back into politics in 1980, working behind the scenes for George Bush's presidential campaign. His public support for Bush increased after early primary victories.
But this Navy veteran knew when to jump ship. When Ronald Reagan emerged as the leading candidate, Gergen vanished from the spotlight in the Bush campaign.
Just months later he was named staff director--and later communications director--in the Reagan administration. He served in that capacity for about two years, further honing his skills at selective information disclosure and Presidential image management. In 1983, as is common in politics, Gergen was squeezed out of the position.
In the intervening decade Gergen moved from one lucrative career to the next, working as a managing editor and editor-at-large at U.S. News and World Report, a visiting professor at Duke and as a fellow at the Institute of Politics.
By the 1990s, Gergen was dubbed a communications wizard, and was one of the political "natives" brought in to shore up the missteps of the Clinton Administration's first hundred days.
Prior to Gergen's arrival, the Clinton White House was facing a variety of organizational problems.
It was like "watching eight-year-olds play soccer in that nobody had a position, whatever the issue was, everyone gravitated towards that," says Mark Shields, a personal friend and frequent liberal opponent of Gergen on the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
Shields, the moderator of CNN's "The Capital Gang," suggested that Gergen turn down the job offer from President Clinton.
"I urged him not to [accept the job]. I said, 'You go in and everybody on the right will say that he was a closet liberal all along, and the liberals will never accept you... they'll see you as coming in to pick up the prize," he says.
Gergen didn't listen.
"To his credit," Shields says, "Gergen said, 'I don't think the country or the office can survive another failed presidency and if I can make any kind of a difference, I feel I have an obligation to do so.'"
Joined by adviser-turned-author George Stephanopoulos and former presidential chief of staff Mack McLarty, Gergen formed what Newsweek called "the triumvirate that runs the White House."
One administration aide credited him with being "a big part of our comeback," joining the administration as it addressed Filegate and Travelgate.
While Gergen says he appreciated his time as a member of the Clinton administration, he is currently enjoying life outside of the White House.
"I worked for [Clinton] a year and a half, and I've been trying to get my life back on track ever since. I feel privileged to have served, though."
Today, Gergen shies away from being characterized as a political "insider."
"There was a time in my life when I spent 150 percent of my working hours in Washington, in the life in Washington, the politics, the arena," Gergen says. "In recent years I've had a growing interest in teaching."
His past colleagues disagree.
"He is the consummate insider with the skills to speak with the outside," says former White House press secretary Michael D. McCurry, now working for a Washington think tank.
According to McCurry, Gergen's work is a reflection of his commitment to others.
"He's really motivated by public service," he says. "At any point along the way he could have stepped out of the lime-light. He really does care about the United States of America."
Far From the Law
Despite years of involvement and influence in the American political system, Gergen confesses he was taken aback by the HLS invitation to be the Class Day speaker.
"I was flattered, but I was surprised," he says. "I'd fallen off the wagon on law a long time ago, I assumed that they generally ask people who were in the legal field for years and years so I wasn't quite sure why I was asked. [I am] someone who [went] to law school, but who made their way in a different path."
And for everything that life in Washington has taught him, Gergen says that his time at HLS was his "most important intellectual experience."
"Academically I loved my Yale years, but the law school is a very professionalizing experience," he says. "It really requires you to build constructs in your mind and achieve a discipline that has been extremely helpful to me in later years."
Gergen's words have been in high demand this commencement season. He recently delivered a class day speech for that second-rate institution in New Haven loaded with Harvard barbs.
On Class Day, Gergen will focus on what he sees as a greater sense of morality and a larger commitment to public service among the current generation of graduates. He attributes this partly to a historical moment.
He says the new century brings with it a sense that there is "a new beginning. "People are more willing to turn the page."
Gergen says he wants to use his HLS platform as a bully pulpit to expound on the unhappiness he feels prevails in some professions, including law.
"I do want to talk about the discontent that exists in several occupations today," he says, and how the current crop of graduates are ideally suited to address these issues.
Today, the expert in scripting the words of others will showcase his ability to craft his own.
"[His speech will] be worth listening to, and I'll be happy to come along and correct his mistakes," Shields quipped.