The Bonus Book of the Week is “Eyewitness to Power, The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton” by David Gergen, published in 2000.
The author, who worked in various capacities in four presidential administrations, wrote about the components that comprise the best presidential leadership. He drew upon theories and comparisons of historians and political scientists in crafting his arguments.
One other kind of source he could have used more often, was numerous personal accounts such as his own, written by insiders– permanent staffers of presidential administrations– because such horse’s mouth records can provide corroboration on incidents and events from different perspectives; the least inaccurate version of the truth.
Gergen said John Keegan identified six major leaders who shaped the twentieth century: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, FDR and Churchill– only the last two of whom presided over democracies. As is well known, the last two also inspired other Western nations to help defeat Fascism, as the cliche goes. Had it not been for their leadership, arguably, the world might have seen the collapse of modern civilization.
During Nixon’s second term, Gergen supervised speech-writing, whose approximately fifty contributors included writers, researchers, administrators and correspondents. He continued working in a hostile environment, because it is human nature, especially among the young, to overlook flaws in an employer-leader in a goal-oriented group-effort, as “… Your wagon’s hitched to a star, and you resent those on the outside who tarnish the adventure.”
According to Larry Sabato, the American presidency is subjected to turmoil about every fifty years: in the 1870’s, there was the Credit Mobilier scandal under president Grant; the 1920’s saw the Teapot Dome shenanigans under Harding; and in the 1970’s, the United States suffered the consequences of a bunch of evil conspiracies under Nixon.
BUT– the author published this book BEFORE the early 2000’s, when the second Iraq War and its associated profiteering, abuse of power and other unconscionable activities became the norm under the leadership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The author did write, “Whether George W. Bush or Al Gore is elected president in 2000, the winner must place strict safeguards against the abuses of the Clinton years.” Good luck with that.
Gergen also opined that Gorbachev, more than Reagan, put the nail in the coffin of Communism by introducing open-minded reforms because the Soviets could no longer avoid the fact that their empire was crumbling. In November 1989, Gorbachev courageously told his country’s military to refrain from retaliating against the people dismantling the Berlin Wall.
Gergen went on to overlook the negative economic consequences of Reagan’s policies, and unfairly, oversimplify comparisons between recent American presidents through bare-bones generalizations.
Gergen felt that Bill and Hillary Clinton should have provided the Washington Post with all the documents that it was demanding, on Whitewater– a real estate investment entity (that might have committed wrongdoing in connection with Bill’s activities as Arkansas governor, but was unrelated to Bill’s presidential activities). The newspaper threatened to give the president bad press otherwise. However, the Post is neither a congressional committee nor a duly appointed federal investigator. The Clintons rightly refused.
At the time, as one of their political consultants, Gergen thought that if the Clintons had submitted the documents to clear themselves, relentless assaults on their privacy for purposes of political retaliation would have ceased. Oh, and Bill could have accomplished so much more during his presidency, absent those later distractions.
Additionally, Gergen made a comparison that was apples-to-oranges with Nixon’s refusal to reveal what he was doing. For, the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press and showed at the very least, probable cause of crimes of the president’s activities. There was no probable cause in the Clintons’ case.
Gergen mentioned three crucial aspects to governing: mutual trust and respect between the executive and legislative branches, and long-term integrity. Major laws that have stood the test of time were passed because the president “… understood what it means to govern. A permanent campaign is its antithesis.”
A president who does nothing but seek reelection (via rallies and the like) will obviously say or do anything to get reelected, as the cliche goes. Besides, as America has seen, two factors that can get a candidate elected president– regardless of competence– are inheritance and a power vacuum at the top.
Gergen pointed out that both Truman and Reagan had street-smarts but lacked extensive academic smarts. Yet with 20/20 hindsight, historians have come to laud the political prowess of their administrations. It is interesting to note as well, that the most recent five presidents in a row have attended Ivy League schools, but have had uneven records, to say the least.
So clearly, formal education is only one of a motley group of traits that maximizes a president’s effectiveness. Gergen listed others: “… knowledge, temperament, faith in the future that leads to wise decisions and responsible leadership… core competence and emotional intelligence, courage… clear purpose that is rooted in the nation’s core values as stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
Read the book to learn a slew of details on presidential administrations’ natures and actions that Gergen contended represented good or bad leadership.