It may be a shame that David Gergen never ran for office, because he possesses a natural politician’s gift of leaving an audience feeling upbeat even while delivering terrible news. He is jovial and gentlemanly and self-effacing, and he flatters people by asking about their background and point of view. But on a visit to Toronto earlier this week, he made quick work of the question of whether Canada might be able to learn something from the current state of U.S. politics. “Yeah” he chuckles: “what not to do.”
“Really?” you want to reply, for even before Gergen became a senior political analyst for CNN, his froggy baritone was offering calm prescriptions to four presidents on both sides of the aisle (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton) as they oversaw the country through some extraordinarily tumultuous times. Are things truly that bad?
“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I’m optimistic,” he says with a thin smile. Then this: “I’m more dispirited than I have been in a long time about where the country is, where we’re heading, and our capacity for change.”
So it goes for the next 45 minutes, as Gergen dissects the state of U.S. politics.
And he makes clear that journalism, which he began practising almost 30 years ago for the same reason he’d entered politics – in short, to make the world a better place – is going through its own convulsions. Still, his default mode is dispassion, and there is no evident bitterness even as he notes that tart-tongued bloggers without any government experience are now called upon to pronounce on politics.
“It was extremely valuable that [the late NBC political anchor]Tim Russert worked on Capitol Hill for [the late Democratic senator]Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” he notes. “I think what I’m leery of is somebody who’s 28, 29 years old suddenly popping up to provide the wisdom of the ages on politics, who’s never played the game, or never worked in it. The premium is on being noticed, as opposed to being right. And I do think that dues-paying is a valuable thing.”
He is not averse to marketing himself. Of the seven short videos on his personal website, only two are of Gergen in his classic mode as a CNN talking head. One is a long-ago April Fool’s Day appearance on Larry King Live, being interviewed by guest host Kermit the Frog; two are Colbert Report appearances; another is a goofy CNN segment from last fall in which host Anderson Cooper gently mocks Gergen by putting him on the “RidicuList” for partying late into the night at George Clooney’s villa on Lake Como in Italy.
The segment concludes with a clip of the comely comedian Jessi Klein cooing sweet nothings to a blushing Gergen: “Thank you for being the most objective, intelligent, truthful analyst on television, and for always being super hot and dreamy while you’re doing it,” she says.
Gergen has nothing against young journalists. In fact, at numerous points both during this interview and later that evening, as the guest speaker at the Grano restaurant Salon Series in Toronto (where he delivered a depressing portrait of the nuclear stalemate brewing in the Middle East), he heaped praise on the next generation. “You want younger writers who are really, really bright. But I think covering or understanding the world today does require you to spend enough time that – “
He interrupts himself. “[New York Times columnist]Tom Friedman spent a great deal of time in the Middle East. He got two Pulitzers early on in his life, as a working journalist, on the ground. I thought Peter Jennings, who was a serious figure, he knew the streets of Beirut better than anybody I knew, and if anything was happening in the Middle East, I’d turn on Peter Jennings because I knew: He’s paid his dues, he’s been there, he’s worked there, he knows it.
“I think one of the real shortcomings of this sort of coming up through the Internet world and popping is that a number of folks who do that simply haven’t had the experience of understanding and being out there.”
Gergen’s history gives his diagnoses a rare gravity. Now 69, he has always seemed the voice of reason and moderation, and not just during campaign season, when the rhetoric among his fellow CNN panelists heats up.
After he graduated from law school in 1967, he served in the U.S. Navy for three and a half years. “I was overseas in Japan for a couple of years, and I was away during the most radical period of the late sixties, and I was never radicalized the way some of my friends were, because I was in a ship a long, long way away,” he says.
The Nixon administration hired him, even though he’d voted for the Democratic candidate in 1968, Hubert Humphrey. Expecting the gig to be brief, he ended up working in and around the White House until the mid-eighties, at which point his friend Mort Zuckerman hired him to work at U.S. News & World Report. Eventually, Gergen became the magazine’s editor. Now, as a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he mentors some of the country's future leaders.
Listening to the current debates carries a particular piquancy for Gergen: He remembers writing speeches for Reagan as the president attempted to reform the U.S. school system; student scores haven’t much improved since that time. And he remembers working with Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford when their administrations pledged to end the U.S. dependence on foreign oil, a goal that remains elusive.
Could fixing the state of journalism help fix the politics?
“I do believe that at a time with this cacophony, the food fights that seem to be on television so much, that there ought to be space for calmer voices, and people who try to sort of work it through. My experience with politicians is, in the press, we tend to treat people as two-dimensional figures or even one-dimensional. And they’re usually quite three-dimensional, and it’s really important [to]understand where they’re coming from, and what their perspective is – if you listen, and not just listen, but engage in what’s called deep listening, that is: ‘I hear what this person’s saying. What’s this person really saying? What’s that conversation underneath the conversation?’ ”
“And if you listen for it – I think, I hope that what I can do is not only be more empathic but help people understand what the argument is here, and what the perspective is, because we’re increasingly in a situation where Democrats and Republicans in our country can look at the same reality and see two different things.”
There is another problem, which is just as pressing here in Canada. “Most of the young journalists I know are like me,” says Gergen. “They’re increasingly upper-income, living in this fairly rarefied world, and we are more and more removed from the problems of working-day people.”
He recently advised one young woman working for him to accept a job at a newspaper in a small Massachusetts town. “I’ve been telling her, ‘Look, this is an opportunity for you to do what few people have done, and that is: really understand what is going on, and the lives of people who are making 30, 40 thousand dollars a year, who are struggling; families are coming apart.’ And we need people who can do that.”
He adds: “I think it’s not just a question of being separated out from the world; it’s being separated out from each other that I think is helping to create a journalism that is smart, sassy, but is not necessarily empathic.
“And if you believe in the old adage that the central purpose of journalism is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, that means having – when you had the sort of era of The Front Page, you had people who came from that community, and I think spoke with a certain authenticity. And now I think that we do it from afar. Or we go drop in for a day and we don’t really see it that well.”