Presidential Guest Speaker reflects on the state of our times during a one-on-one interview with AAOS Now
As Presidential Guest Speaker at the 2018 AAOS Annual Meeting, journalist and presidential advisor David Gergen offered his thoughts on the current state of political division and where the United States may be headed in the future. Following his presentation, Mr. Gergen took the time to speak with Stuart J. Fischer, MD, a member of the AAOS Now Editorial Board. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.
Dr. Fischer: Mr. Gergen, thank you for coming to speak to us today. You’ve worked for four presidents, a treasury secretary, and, in your earlier years, a Democratic governor. You’ve been an editor. You’ve been a professor. In your opinion, have the qualities needed for presidential leadership changed over the years?
Mr. Gergen: We live in a very complicated global world, and inevitably, the questions that come to a president are not only significant and international, but frequently they involve very arcane, nuanced issues. A president needs to be well-schooled in the public policy challenges of our time, before taking office. It is not a good place for amateurs. It is just hard to learn on the job. Your time is consumed, usually, with the challenge of the moment, and if you don’t bring to it some historical understanding, I think you’re handicapped.
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Harry Truman’s family was too poor to send him to college and he wound up working for seven years at the family farm behind a mule. He was the only president in the 20th century who never had a college degree, but he was self-taught. He devoured books and learned history. So, when the question came to his desk, “Should the United States recognize Israel?” his foreign policy advisors—led by George Marshall—said, “No, we should not do that because it’s going to be an attack. There will be a war. There will be a great shortage of oil, and the Western world will go into a depression and the Communists will move in.” It was an argument made by many in those days. On the domestic side, he was being pushed to do it. So, he sat everybody around a desk and talked to them for 2½ hours and told them the history of the Middle East, off the top of his head. He thought a great deal about the Middle East, and he thought a great deal about Israel, and he decided, then and there, we’re going to recognize Israel, now. The difference that he brought to the table was his own knowledge.
People make the argument that if the president doesn’t know a lot of things, that’s fine because he can hire people who tell him what’s what. The problem for the president is that the toughest issues are very close calls. Inevitably, you have one side of the White House saying do this, and the other side of the White House saying, don’t do that, and it’s the president who must make the call. You cannot count on having one-sided support from your team. That’s true, I think, for leaders in every organization.
The deeper point is, I think a president today must be very aware of, and experienced in, the world, not just the United States. To go back to Harry Truman, I went to Independence, Mo., once and gave a talk at his library. It was a wonderful experience, but I came across a text of a speech he’d given to high schoolers. He said to them, “Not every reader is a leader, but every leader is a reader.” I thought that was wise.
Dr. Fischer: You’ve noted in some of your writing the importance of a president picking a good team. In particular, you emphasize that Ronald Reagan, above all the people you worked for, looked for outside voices or people who worked against him in the presidential runoff and chose them because he thought they were the most effective.
Mr. Gergen: I thought Reagan did a better job than almost anybody I’ve seen in contemporary times.
Dr. Fischer: Do you think Mr. Reagan was suited to that big-tent approach more than other presidents?
Mr. Gergen: Reagan had a lot of self-confidence and knew who he was. He knew his weaknesses and was willing to acknowledge and fill the holes where he felt he was not strong. It didn’t bother him in the least. A lot of people in politics need to win to satisfy some inner insecurities or issues that they’ve had growing up, to sort of validate who they are. Those kinds of people—simply trying to make it because they think they can—do not make good leaders. Richard Nixon was like that. He desperately needed it. He didn’t feel complete unless he was president. He believed he had failed in life unless he was president. He needed the validation. Reagan didn’t need validation. He was not just comfortable in his own skin, he was serene. He had accomplished much more than he wanted to in life, and he felt blessed to be there, and it made him a better leader.
Importantly, Reagan integrated his California people with staffers who had experience in Washington. In effect, he had the best of both worlds, and he integrated people across ideology. He knew I disagreed with him on some issues, but we had more common ground than we had differences. He brought in people who he thought were talented, even though they might disagree with him on some things. You’ll find that the litmus test that has been applied, increasingly since Reagan, and by Democrats as well as Republicans is: “We don’t want somebody in there who is X, Y, or Z, or believes X, Y, or Z.” I think that’s a mistake.
Dr. Fischer: You’ve been a speech writer or an advisor to four presidents. Who was the easiest to write a speech for and who was the most difficult?
Mr. Gergen: The easiest was Ronald Reagan and that’s because that guy could get up and read a New York telephone directory and make it sound interesting. Most people can’t do that. The first time I ever met Reagan or did anything for him was in the late 1970s when I was doing some freelance work and before he was president. His team called me and said, “Would you write a speech for him? He’s coming to the National Press Club. He needs a speech on international relations, special emphasis on Latin America.” I agreed to do it. It was not a good speech. It was a pedestrian speech, at best. Then I went to hear him. I’d never heard him speak before. He made that speech sing. I said, “My God, I wrote that speech.” I thought, “It is pretty damn lousy, but the performance was great.”
The hardest guy to write a speech for was Gerald Ford, and that’s because there were so many divisions within his own team about what he should say. I think we made a terrible mistake. We misjudged the man on the staff. He was giving speeches up on the Hill that had a lot of one or two syllable words, sort of a “see Spot run” kind of speech. When he became president, his staff wrote very simplistic speeches. They thought he would mispronounce something.
A few months after he left office, his staff called me and said, “The President has a speech he is supposed to give in a few days. He has a draft. He’d like to send you the draft and get your response to it.” I read the speech. It was really sophisticated. A lot of three and four syllable words, nuanced, intellectually interesting, striking, totally unlike Gerry Ford. When he called me, I said, “Mr. President, I’ve had a chance to read the speech. It’s an extremely good speech, but it’s not your kind of speech. Do you want me to rewrite it? Is that the reason you’re calling me?” He said, “No, actually, this is the first time I’ve had enough private, alone time to write my own speech, and I wanted to see what you thought.” I realized, my God, all that time, we’d underestimated him. He was capable of a much better speech, and we the staff had dumbed everything down.
Dr. Fischer: You’re credited with writing a speech about bailing out the New York economy. Can you tell the story of that?
Mr. Gergen: After President Nixon left office, I worked at the Treasury Department for a while, working for Bill Simon, who was then treasury secretary. The White House called and wanted a speech about New York City finances. At the time, the city was in dire straits. They had too little revenue and too much spending, were in danger of going bankrupt, and were looking for help from the U.S. government. I knew President Ford was staunchly opposed to giving them aide the way they wanted it and wanted some changes. And so, as speechwriters often do, I intentionally overwrote the speech. I created a very hardline speech. I knew it was going to go to the White House staff and they would water it down. It would still have the argument, but with less sting. When he delivered the speech I sent over, I was shocked because I knew it was too harsh. The next day, the New York Daily News had a great big front-page headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” That hurt a lot, politically. With so many people at the White House who liked to water things down, I was amazed that they let the speech come out the way it did.
Dr. Fischer: You were a print journalist for a time. With the 24-hour digital news cycle, the demands of journalism today are probably different from when you started. How do you think things have changed?
Mr. Gergen: Well, I can’t speak for daily journalists, but I know, if you’re working for a major newspaper today, you’re under enormous pressure to write early and quickly, then refresh and keep refreshing. … I think it has made journalism a little breathless, and sometimes we don’t go as deep as we have in the past. To his credit, Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post and beefed up the team. When you have three or four reporters all working on a story and they are all very good, you can produce much better journalism. Not all is lost. We’ve had a real fight between The New York Times and The Washington Post these last months. There is a rivalry with respect to who is going to break the next story on Trump, and it has been healthy for journalism.
Stuart J. Fischer, MD, practices at Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J., and the Center for Ambulatory Surgery in Mountainside, N.J. He is the editor-in-chief of OrthoInfo.org and is a member of the AAOS Now Editorial Board.