- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

David Gergen held important White House jobs under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. From that experience, he has produced a well-informed and intelligent book about presidential leadership, and has drawn some useful if not terribly original conclusions.
"Eyewitness to Power," though it's leavened from time to time with personal anecdotes, is not intended to be read as a memoir, Mr. Gergen says in his preface. Nor is it an attempt to settle old scores. Which is a pity, because all that impartiality tends to make for dull reading. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who famously said that if you couldn't say anything nice about anyone you should come sit next to her, certainly wouldn't have wanted to be seated next to David Gergen.
Except for John Dean, whom he bravely says he holds "in minimal high regard," Mr. Gergen seems to find it difficult to say anything un-nice about anybody especially anybody who might still be influential, or have influential friends. When there is criticism, it is inevitably followed a paragraph or two later with praise. Sometimes this suggests balance; more often it is simply ludicrous.
Thus, after discussing the Hillarycare debacle and noting that the voters who selected Bill Clinton hadn't asked for a co-presidency, Mr. Gergen hastily reaches for the psychosyrup. "Over the eighteen months I worked with [Hillary], I gained great respect for her as a champion of social causes … I do not mean to leave the impression that Mrs. Clinton was a harridan … Clearly, she had internalized her anger over the years … She was also a sensitive, vulnerable woman."
Mr. Gergen more than once describes himself as a moderate, a centrist, a person made uneasy by strong views in other words, a Beltway survivor. Gerald Ford, he says, he found philosophically more on his wavelength then either Presidents Nixon or Reagan. Big surprise.
If the writer has an ideology, it's one of the conventional Beltway beliefs. Thus, Mr. Reagan was bad for the economy, Mikhail Gorbachev and not Mr. Reagan ended the Cold War, Nixon's bombing and not the invading the North Vietnamese destabilized Cambodia, and so on. By the time he explains that he voted for Bill Clinton instead of George Bush in 1992 because, "I had sadly concluded that [Mr. Bush] would not carry out a reform agenda," Mr. Gergen has begun to sound like a New York Times editorial.
Yet despite the occasional annoying digression, his book is generally fair-minded and lucid, especially in its sections on Richard Nixon's tragic failure and Mr. Reagan's unexpected and remarkable success. President Ford is well-treated too, albeit more perfunctorily. Mr. Bush and Jimmy Carter get only passing attention from Mr. Gergen, mostly for their failures.
When it comes to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gergen is highly and perhaps understandably uneven. Although he had been, putatively, a Renaissance Weekend "Friend of Bill" for 10 years before the Clintons arrived in Washington, he was recruited as an outsider, and generally treated like one when he reported to work. His year and a half in the White House, from mid-1993 until late 1994, was obviously less than pleasant.
It was reminiscent, in eerie ways, of the Nixon administration and indeed Mr. Gergen, like other observers, sees a number of parallels between these two American disasters a quarter-century apart.
Dark brooding Dick, like sunny uncontrolled Bill, was a walking political encyclopedia, who could discourse brilliantly on all aspects of government and history. (Six months before he died, Nixon, on a visit to Washington, said that Mr. Clinton should push harder to win approval of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement a step, he said, which would prove as important as the repeal of the Corn Laws in 19th century Britain.)
There were darker parallels too. Bill, like Dick, displayed a bizarre paranoia, seeing plots where there was really only normal political opposition. For both presidents, this justified the use of unethical, immoral and even illegal means to achieve ends they saw as not only necessary but noble. When challenged about their actions, the first response of each was to lie.
In fact, this is the behavior of tyrants, not democratic leaders, and is so perceived by the governed. Thus Presidents Nixon and Clinton are both intensely polarizing figures, much more because of their personalities than for the policies they advocated. Each man was greatly gifted, and each, in very different ways, was fatally flawed.
What's the lesson here for the republic? There are several, of course, but Mr. Gergen, with his nerdy air of great discovery, proudly puts his finger on the obvious one: "If forced to choose between high intelligence and high integrity in a leader, I would not hesitate to prefer integrity."
He doesn't use this new discovery, however, to draw any conclusions about the two candidates seeking to succeed Mr. Clinton. Doing so might be interesting, but it could also be dangerous. And after reading this book, one assumes Mr. Gergen wouldn't want to say anything which might one day cost him a job.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer in Maryland.



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