- - Thursday, June 2, 2016

David Gergen, a senior political analyst for CNN, has served as Counselor, Director of Communications, and speechwriter during the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

To state the obvious, Gergen knows words like a baker knows flour.

Recently, during the commencement address at Elon University in his home state of North Carolina, Gergen stated:

“It is said that the arc of history bends toward justice. Indeed, it does, but it won’t get there without a shove.”

Gergen spoke truth in those sentences, even if his own distinguished career has not exactly been built around a strategy of making forceful or timely shoves.

Imagine if Patrick Henry had waited until a week before General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington before stating his first opinion about the Revolutionary War: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Because Henry made that statement in 1775, he went down in history as a man of courage, risking his very life for the cause of freedom. But if stated in 1781…not so much.

In 1993, as Gergen went to work for President Clinton, Michael Kelly wrote a profile for The New York Times titled, “David Gergen: Master of the Game.” The piece dissected not only Gergen but the entire relationship of POTUS to the press—a relationship that Gergen had himself helped to shape. Kelly wrote:

“The career of David Gergen represents the triumph of image. The character of David Gergen represents the apotheosis of the insider. The two are rolled up in him together, in a shining, seamless roundness whose mirrored surface reveals nothing but the political scene rolling by.”

The piece explains and mildly laments the now commonplace political activity of “spin”—the selling of one’s message to the electorate. 

Kelly’s article continues, quoting Gergen (bold emphasis mine):

“So often now, Presidents are being judged, politicians are being judged by the quality of their performances: how well do they play the game?” Gergen says. “Did they give a good speech? Or did they do something interesting today? It’s all the same. The horse-race nature of the campaign, which gets covered ad nauseam, now also dominates the Presidency. And I think in some ways that the people who are in the business of government and the people in the punditry business are almost co-conspirators. They are feeding off each other. The people in the press are judging you on that basis and the people inside are responding to that. Instead of saying, ‘How do we change things in people’s lives?’ it has become: ‘How do we put the packaging together? How do we put the bright ribbons on it that will make people think it is important, or interesting or different? How do we make the pundits say, “Gee, that was impressive”?’ And this has no bearing on what happens underneath, and it creates a deepening cynicism.

Gergen admits to Kelly that these “packaging” skills had been his stock-in-trade:

“I admit that. I’ve done a lot of it. But you realize… . ” Here he pauses for a long moment. “Look, I plead guilty to having played the game and inventing some forms of the game that I thought eventually went beyond what was intended… . It gave way over time to — and this is what I regret — a selling for the sake of selling. It had nothing to do with ideas. It had nothing to do with anything that was real. Eventually, it became selling the sizzle without the steak. There was nothing connected to it. It was all cellophane. It was all packaging. And I feel I contributed to that. There’s no question about that. I’d been aggressive in my early years trying to get some of that set up. I did that in part because I thought that was the only way you could govern. I think now, as I get older, that the steak is very important, too. Yes, the selling has to continue, but it’s not sufficient in and of itself. That becomes, over time, just an empty exercise.”

In reading Gergen’s self-incrimination, one might be lulled into thinking he was offering a mea culpa and turning his cellophane-sizzle car around.

Instead, at the time the article was written, Gergen had just begun serving as the counselor to Clinton, who as Kelly noted, had charged Ronald Reagan with ruining America.

In 1983, Reagan gave a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals that became known as the “Evil Empire” speech. Reagan’s “steak” got people’s attention, as he dared to evaluate the U.S.S.R. by using a moral scorecard.

Historian Steven Hayward explained the dissent Reagan faced within his administration over the speech:

“Some White House staffers dubbed it the “Darth Vader” speech. Communications Director David Gergen called the “evil empire” phrase “outrageous.” In fact, he and others had excised the line from Reagan speechwriter Tony Dolan’s early draft of Reagan’s 1982 Westminster speech before it ever reached the president. Gergen backed down this time when he discovered that Reagan himself had insisted on including the phrase and had actually toughened that section of the speech.” 

Historian Robert Schlesinger added this:

“Dolan was a movement conservative, who viewed communism in the same deeply moralistic, philosophical terms that Reagan employed. …In the White House, many of Reagan’s senior aides were ideologically in the [Howard] Baker mold, including Gergen. This set up a dynamic of internal discord betwen the “pragmatists” and the “true believers,” with each side certain that it was carrying out Reagan’s wishes. Nowhere was that tension more pronounced than in the relations between the senior staff and the speechwriters.”

Rolling Stone also profiled Gergen in 1993, playfully titling it, “David Gergen: All President’s Men,” to describe Gergen’s malleability:

“In the midst of rabid Reaganism, Gergen represented an aloof, managerial ethic. He was working for his third successive Republican administration without ever registering as a Republican; carrying out the radical Reagan agenda without sharing radical rightwing values.

Gergen’s role is neither idea man nor true believer; he is the system’s man.”

* * *

 All this came to mind when I read about Gergen’s recent commencement address.

Gergen, who has made a career out of “cellophane,” decided to become a “true believer” about something.

Bathroom Wars.

North Carolina is one of many states where the culture wars have flared up again. The state legislature passed a law, “House Bill 2” (HB2), mandating, among other things, that a person must use the restroom corresponding to the gender stated on their birth certificate. In response, everyone from Bruce Springsteen to President Obama has threatened or boycotted the state.

Enter Gergen. The man who thought it was “outrageous” for Reagan to call the murderous Soviet Union an “evil empire,” likened the supporters of HB2 to Jim Crow racists of the 1960s. He said:

“Enough is enough,” declared Gergen. “For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes – white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender – everyone – to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people.”

Gergen praised courageous civil rights advocates in North Carolina and elsewhere who broke down walls between races. …With pride, Gergen detailed the state’s progress.

…”Then suddenly, without warning, dark clouds arrived. The moderation that characterized our state – the belief among Republicans and Democrats that we are all in this together – gave way to a new, angrier, extremist politics.”

Gergen cited a list of actions by the state legislature over the past several years. “The signals coming out of the State Capitol in Raleigh have sent a thunderous message rolling out across America: that North Carolina is no longer a pioneer in advancing people of color, people who are gay, people living on the margins. Instead, many here want to go back, far back to a darker time.”

…”And where all roads point to, and what our ultimate destination should be, and that is repeal HB-2!”

Gergen said the differences are not Democrat vs. Republicans nor liberal vs. conservative, but are “between moderates and extremists.”

“My friends, we dare not go back here in this state. No. We need to “take North Carolina back!”

What rankles me about Gergen’s speech isn’t his opposition to HB2. In our nation, we encourage the free exchange of ideas, and Gergen is entitled to his opinion on these matters as much as anyone.

But Gergen’s Johnny-come-lately moralizing on this issue is so strange because to the best of my knowledge (and please, do correct me if I’m wrong), Gergen has never stuck his neck out for LGBT rights before the current milieu of the Obama administration. 

  • When he worked for Nixon? No.
  • During his time with Ford? Nope.
  • While in the Reagan White House? Negative.
  • As Clinton led the way to “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and DOMA? Nada.

Gergen said it best when he stated, “For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted.”

Just to clarify, I disagree with Gergen about HB2. But my point is that his newfound courage is no courage at all.

Now that nationally there is almost no political or cultural risk to stating a pro-LGBT position, Gergen says it’s time to stand up and be counted? What’s next for Gergen? An OpEd against George III’s Stamp Act?

Keep in mind that Gergen graduated from Harvard Law School two years before the Stonewall Riots. He went to work—in the White House—before some of the Elon graduates’ parents were even born!

In his best-selling book Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton (2000), Gergen quotes JFK’s statement made after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba: “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” 

I wish someone on the LGBT side of the debate would say, “Thanks, David, but we’ve got this covered.”

And Gergen becomes insufferable when he equates opposition to HB2 with the frontline soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement—for two reasons.

First, Gergen admits that though he was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, he wasn’t a part of it per se’. Yet, born in 1942, he was 18 years old when the famous Civil Rights sit-ins occurred nearby in Greensboro, North Carolina. In other words, he was born in plenty of time to play an active role in the movement, but he didn’t—and he says as much in his Elon speech.

But I must tell you that the most credit for our rise as a people belongs elsewhere. It belongs to those courageous young men and women — mostly black, a few white — who sat in at lunch counters in Greensboro, rode buses into Mississippi, had dogs sicced on them in Birmingham and had their heads bashed in on Pettus Bridge. We should always be grateful to them for their bravery. They not only pressured us to change our ways, they opened our eyes to the injustices in our midst. 

In other words, the times changed and he changed with it—but only after the soldiers had won the battle.

Second, Gergen seems to argue that a strong proof of the rightness of the Civil Rights Movement is in the pudding of the economic boom experienced in the New South after rejecting Jim Crow.

As Lincoln said about the abolition of slavery, the ending of Jim Crow and the beginnings of this new era were not only good for blacks but for whites as well. The civil rights movement liberated people of every background to lead more fulfilling, more virtuous lives.

I also believe that when walls started coming down between the races, walls started coming down between North Carolina and the rest of America. A new economy and new society could finally take off.

Companies saw that this had become a good place to call home, to attract employees, to raise families, to pump life into our universities and to unleash a spirit of innovation.

In that spirit, a history of the Civil Rights Movement should be written by Michael Corleone and titled: It’s Not Personal. It’s Only Business.

Gergen’s pragmatic point is that North Carolinians need to remember their pocketbook when considering HB2. Indeed, that is the tact taken by rock stars and President Obama, as they threaten states with boycotts of concerts and Federal dollars over laws like HB2 or religious liberty legislation.

Bono sang: 

A prize fighter in a corner is told
Hit where it hurts
Silver and gold

But non-pragmatists know that everything isn’t for sale.

* * *

If you’re looking to impact the world, then jump in and “get some skin in the game” when that phrase means something—when you can actually lose your skin.

And don’t filch credit from the morally courageous once the risk of defeat has passed by. You may become enriched in the process, but the rest of your fellow citizens will be left cynical, holding cellophane and ribbons.

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