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Still Searching for the Essence of Presidential Leadership
on September 11, 2000
In the preface to this meditation on presidential substance and style, Author David Gergen makes one of the great understatements of our time: "I do not promise that these thought will be strikingly original." As Gergen predicts, this book shows little imagination, and he could just as easily have written that he is, in fact, presenting an extended exercise in the conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, Gergen worked for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, as well as on President Bush's campaign, and with President Carter after he left office. As a result, Gergen has had the opportunity to know every chief executive of the United States since1969, and he must have some insights into the essential elements of presidential leadership. At least that is what I expected.
What I am about to do is a bit unfair because I am taking Gergen's words out of context, but here are a few examples of Gergen's less-than-incisive observations: "Like so much else in the Nixon operation, the zeal to win, to control every detail, to make the trains run on time, went completely overboard;" "Jerry Ford had a mind of his own about what he wanted;" "There was a continual jockeying for power and for Reagan's ear;" and "Clinton had slipped on one banana peel after another." Gergen is one of the current crop of journalists who have raised political punditry to an art form. He is not Walter Lippmann, but neither is Gergen, a graduate of Harvard Law School, an ink-stained wretch or a hack. And that is why I expected more from him.
Why does this book fail to provide depth of insight? This is what I suspect happened: The publisher, and perhaps Gergen himself, wanted to get it into print during the 2000 campaign. The text covers a lot of ground, and given the self-imposed deadline pressure, there simply was not time for judicious rewriting and careful editing. As a result, a lot of the prose is flabby, and there is at least one embarrassing gaffe, when Gergen refers to "Mr. Chips goes to Washington." (Film enthusiasts certainly will recognize "Mr. Chips" as the much-beloved English schoolteacher, while "Mr. Smith" was the unsophisticated senator.) Nevertheless, I believe that this is a good book which has the potential for greatness. For instance, about midway through the book, Gergen writes: "At the heart of leadership is the leader's relationship with followers." That may border on triteness, but I believe it is an important concept. If Gergen had carefully examined the leader-follower relationship for each of the presidents he studies, we might have gained real insight into how the public decides who will lead and then how the president goes about leading. Instead, too much of this book is devoted to inside-the-Beltway blather. The descriptive chapters of this book are, therefore, somewhat disappointing. The final chapter, entitled "Seven Lessons of Leadership," is prescriptive but also less than persuasive. For instance, Gergen asserts that "integrity is the most important [personal attribute] for a president." That may be a valuable principle for a civics class, but I submit that it has little to do with practical reality. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were well known for their ethical lapses and each got elected president twice. Jimmy Carter was a man of high character but a nearly utter failure as president. And telling us the president must have a "capacity to persuade," tells us little we do not already know. No one can get nominated, let alone elected, without the power of persuasion, but some presidents are better preachers from the bully pulpit than others. The question, of course is: Why? For all of his experience in public life, Gergen has not yet given enough thought to the lessons he can draw from that experience.
Sometime before the election of 2004, I urge Gergen to return to his computer, cut the text by about one-third, but triple the penetrating analysis. The result, I predict, would be a genuine contribution to the popular literature about what it takes to be a leader in the most powerful elected office in the world.