Gergen: An Old Hand to Craft a New Message
The man that President Clinton has named as a top adviser and communications director learned his first political lessons in the Watergate-tainted White House of Richard Nixon and went on to become a key strategist of the Reagan Revolution that Clinton hopes to turn back.
David Gergen also is known as a moderate, pro-abortion rights centrist who warns against the dangers of partisanship, extremism and ambition in Washington. And during three decades of experience in Republican administrations, working for Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, Gergen has been a central figure in the development of modern political communications theory--the notion that a President must put forth a clear and concise political agenda, while orchestrating news coverage in the process.
Gergen brings to the Clinton White House experience in crafting an overall communications strategy for two other embattled presidents: Nixon and Ford. He also brings a reputation for high credibility with a Washington press corps that has come to mistrust the Clinton team.
“The honesty dimension of the Clinton White House has just gone up,” said Eddie Mahe, a conservative Republican political consultant and longtime Washington insider. “Gergen clearly seems to understand you always have to tell the truth, which this group down there now doesn’t seem to. They are always shading things.”
While the appointment is likely to be pleasing to moderates and conservatives, it may alarm liberals, who have had some success in moving Clinton--a professed “new Democrat"--to the left.
Indeed, the President’s remarks Saturday indicated that shifting the Clinton White House back to the political center will be key to Gergen’s role. And the success of that effort may foretell the future of his presidency.
During the press conference at which Clinton confirmed that Gergen would become counselor to the President--moving Communications Director George Stephanopoulos to a behind-the-scenes policy role--Gergen attempted to explain how a man who had been a key player in three GOP administrations could join a Democratic President dedicated to undoing much of the last 12 years of Republican policy.
“It is time to move beyond the scorching partisanship that now pervades Capitol Hill,” Gergen said. “Move beyond the cynicism that now creeps into so much of our (news) reporting. And move beyond the old boxes and thinking. Four out of five of our past presidents have left office broken by its weight. This presidency must and will have a better outcome.”
A South Carolina native and former Democrat, the 51-year-old Gergen is well-known in Washington as something of an intellectual as well as a political technician. The Yale graduate and Harvard lawyer met Clinton years ago during Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, S.C., an annual retreat with liberal overtones that is attended by influential Americans in politics, business and the arts.
Five years ago, liberal author Mark Hertsgaard, in a book that stridently denounced Reagan and the press, described Gergen in terms that were unusually kind and now also prescient.
“Gergen’s primary allegiance was not the triumph of the Republican Party or the so-called conservative agenda. His concern, rather, was with the future of the American system.” He saw the Reagan White House as an “opportunity to work from within to break the string of failed or interrupted presidencies that in his view stretched from (Jimmy) Carter back to (John F.) Kennedy.”
In an interview with CNN Saturday, Gergen said that as a moderate he shares many of the ideas of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of Southern moderate Democrats that Clinton helped found.
“A lot of people say (the Clinton Administration) is off to the left on everything. That is not where I hear this President coming from,” he said. “I think this President wants to be more of a centrist.”
Clinton has said several times in the past week that communications problems have been central to the difficulties of his Administration. In effect, this is the third time that Gergen will join a White House specifically for the purpose of ensuring that a President’s message remains on track and that his political agenda stays focused.
Gergen learned his political fundamentals in the Nixon White House as a speech writer and then as a director of research and writing under Charles W. Colson, the aggressive public relations specialist who was jailed for his role in the Watergate conspiracy.
“We had a rule in the Nixon operation that before any public event was put on his schedule, you had to know what the headline out of the event was going to be, and what the lead paragraph would be,” Gergen told author Hedrick Smith in his book “The Power Game.” The President’s goal was for the White House, not the networks, to determine the content of the evening newscasts.
It was under Colson that the “line of the day” concept was developed, which held that one message was to be communicated through the media daily.
In 1972, Gergen also was instrumental in scripting to the minute the first wholly ceremonial political convention, the Republican renominating convention of Nixon in Miami.
After Nixon’s resignation, President Ford’s people banished Gergen to the Treasury Department, where he was a speech writer for Treasury Secretary William E. Simon. But in 1976 he was brought back to the White House by Ford’s chief of staff, Dick Cheney (who later became defense secretary under President George Bush), to become director of communications, effectively the same position he will hold for Clinton.
At 34 years of age, his mission then was to help refocus a troubled White House by more aggressively orchestrating the news--using techniques learned under Nixon. Ultimately, the goal was to help ensure that Ford defeated Reagan in the 1976 primaries.
Four years later, when Reagan came to power, Gergen was among the Washington insiders and political moderates who gained influence. Under Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, a Bush man and former Ford official, Gergen was especially concerned that Reagan quickly develop an agenda that would define his presidency.
Gergen prepared a study comparing the first 100 days of every President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. It demonstrated that successful presidents were those who established a clear, concise agenda early in their terms. He co-authored what became known as the 100-Day Plan, now viewed as having been essential to Reagan’s early success.
In addition to his ability to develop overall strategy, Gergen is skilled at subtly shaping the tone of news stories, often by spending time with reporters one-on-one.
Under Gergen, Reagan’s team did daily tracking studies of the nightly news and found that the economic package was not dominating the coverage as much as they wanted, in part because controversial Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig was too visible. “We decided to cut off his story,” Gergen told author Smith.
Gergen also was ruthless about insisting that Reagan’s staff plan media strategy months ahead.
“David used to keep yelling at me: ‘Frank, you’ve gotta be focused on the future,’ ” Gergen assistant Frank A. Ursomarso told John Anthony Maltese, author of “Spin Control.” “And I’d say, ‘Well, I’m out there (planning ahead) 90 days.’ And he’d say, ‘That’s not enough. You’ve got to be out there six months.’ ”
Lack of long-range planning on the part of the Clinton White House has been viewed as a serious problem by Democrats working with the Administration.
“We were on the phone with them one day last week,” said one Senate aide, “and they changed their minds about what they wanted to do three days ahead, or even what subject they wanted to talk about.”
Gergen also developed a reputation for his relentless efforts to shape the tone of network newscasts. He typically called all three major networks about 90 minutes before their final deadlines to determine the nature of the coverage they planned to give the Administration that day. His calls would be followed by a flurry of efforts to influence those stories.
Gergen also believed in what he called “lightning rods,” using key Administration officials in visible positions to deflect criticism and deliver messages.
“You have only one four-star general, but you’ve got a lot of lieutenants who can give blood,” Gergen told Maltese in his book about the history of White House communications. That is one thing many feel is lacking in the Clinton Administration.
Throughout Reagan’s first term, conservatives remained suspicious of Gergen--as they were of Baker and image-maker Michael K. Deaver--as being too pragmatic and moderate. They also complained that Gergen was too cozy with reporters and often believed him to be a major source of White House leaks.
Gergen quit his last White House job in January, 1984, during the third year of Reagan’s first term. While some insiders say they believe he had a break with Baker, Gergen told others he was unhappy about the direction of the Reagan White House--particularly the handling of the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the souring relations with the press.
In the early days of the Reagan Administration, Gergen briefly shared the briefing duties with press spokesman Larry Speakes, as Stephanopoulos did with Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers under Clinton. Gergen was not particularly good at it, reporters recall, and the arrangement lasted only a few months.
Gergen shares something else in common with the Clinton Administration. In 1981, shortly after the Republicans regained power, Reagan media specialist Deaver said he proposed banishing reporters from the upper press office, where the press secretary and communications department officials worked next to the President. Gergen talked Deaver out of it. “Once you give the press a prerogative,” Deaver recalls Gergen saying, “you can’t take it away.”
Stephanopoulos, a decade later, wanted to make the same change. And he did, instantly angering the press.