Four months into his term, it seemed that Bill Clinton’s White House and official Washington spoke different languages, and the administration was sinking fast, lost in the translation. Enter David Gergen, veteran of the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, as the savvy insider the president needed. MAUREEN ORTH provides a minute-by-minute account of how Gergen got the job, and finds out what motivates the controversial tongue-for-hire
Original Publication: Vanity Fair – August, 1993.
The Senate Finance Committee was stopped dead. During David Gergen’s first week on the job as the president’s new counselor, the storm-tossed White House was still sending two signals for what it wanted done, and the committee chairman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was losing patience. If the president wanted to abandon the B.t.u. tax, Moynihan needed to find $72 billion to make up for it fast. He could always take $20 billion or so from a Medicare loophole which, he explains to me, “New Hampshire is using to build roads with,” adding, “These things happen.” But the chairman was also getting the word that Hillary Rodham Clinton wanted to keep that money for health-care reform. In exasperation, Moynihan got on the phone with Gergen. “I asked, ‘Have we got two administrations there or one? I need $21 billion or else there never will be any health-care reform, because the president’s whole future depends on passing the budget.’ So 20 minutes later Mrs. Clinton calls me, and she says, ‘I’m going to fax you $21.7 billion in Medicare,’ and in 15 minutes she does.”
Moynihan was amazed; he wasn’t used to action from the highest echelons of this White House, only flattery. “If you call, what you hear is: ‘You are the smartest person. The president is so proud he knows you—he doesn’t know how you can know so much,’ ” says Moynihan. “They tell you that, and not one frigging thing happens.”
“Are you telling me,” I ask, “that David Gergen is functioning as the de facto chief of staff?” “I hope so,” Moynihan answers, “because the fellow who tells you how smart you are, that you’re the greatest and the best, is the chief of staff, and nothing ever gets done.”
When some House Democrats heard the president was ditching the B.t.u. tax, they were furious he had made them vote on the controversial measure in the first place. At her noon briefing, reporters peppered 32-year-old press secretary Dee Dee Myers with questions about the flip-flop and Myers sought guidance from Gergen. Gergen said, “Let’s talk to Leon. The press needs to be told where the president is on this, and Leon’s just back from a meeting on the Hill.” He called Budget Director Leon Panetta and had Myers take the reporters in for a “backgrounder” so that Panetta could explain to them the administration’s policy. Says Myers, “That helped change the tone of the story.”
Similarly, as soon as Gergen heard that The Washington Postwas about to play on page one remarks of Transportation Secretary Federico Pena’s concerning his unhappiness that a transportation tax might be levied instead, he made sure Pena called both Moynihan and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to warn them, got Pena to call the reporter “to walk it back a little bit,” and had Myers ready with a statement anticipating reporters’ questions at the 7:15 A.M. news briefing—thereby picking up the tempo in a new, faster, 24-hour cable-TV/headline-news cycle.
All these would have been mere boilerplate moves in the tightly controlled press operations of the three Republican presidents Gergen had previously served: Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. Gergen comes out of a highly disciplined school of press manipulation, selective leaking, and spin-doctoring whose adherence to the party line—despite numerous factional disputes—was rivaled probably only in Beijing and Moscow. As communications director in the Reagan White House, Gergen presided over “the message of the day,” which was transmitted to every public-information officer of every federal agency. Gergen’s specialty, says Michael Deaver, Reagan’s architect of imagery, was “hand-holding with the nets,” trying to make sure that whatever appeared on the evening news was something he had fed.
In contrast, Bill Clinton’s press relations had been a shambles from day one, when the administration broke tradition by closing off the hallway leading to then communications director George Stephanopoulos’s office and denying reporters access. Gergen’s first move in overseeing new communications director Mark Gearan’s tenure was to open the hallway again and also give the vivacious Myers, whom the largely male press corps seemed to regard as a kid sister, more access to the president, thereby allowing her to speak with increased authority. Now Myers seems ecstatic with Gergen, despite the fact that he once defended and sold the deficit-expanding, ketchup-is-a-vegetable Reagan policies that Bill Clinton ran against. “He empowers people—he did it to me,” she says. “I wasn’t in as much with the president—people didn’t go out of their way to see I was included. Now I can go get answers instead of getting blindsided in briefings.”
Clinton stunned Washington when he picked David Gergen, the gangly, six-foot-five, 51-year-old G.O.P. spinmeister, who, The New York Times once said, looked as if he was kidnapped as a child and raised by giraffes. For the last decade, however, Gergen, who now admits that he voted for Clinton, has worked hard to metamorphose from a Republican hit man and to hoist himself into first-tier punditry by commenting with Mark Shields on The MacNeilt-Lehrer NewsHour and by serving as editor-at-large and a visible “Mr. Outside” for U.S. News & World Report. Now the restless and peripatetic Gergen’s mandate would be to act as a senior adviser “at the intersection of policy, politics, and communications,” as besieged chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty put it.
Still, a dread Republican? In his younger days, Gergen, who had gone to Yale with Bob Woodward, was even mentioned as possibly being Watergate’s Deep Throat. “Preposterous,” says Raymond Price, Nixon’s chief speechwriter, who hired Gergen in 1971 to be his assistant. “We sometimes used him to carry messages to Woodward!”
‘It’s a nine-year conversation we’ve been having,” the president explained to me under a full moon at a dinner that Ethel Kennedy gave at Hickory Hill after the Mass at Arlington to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death. “I realized that David was someone I could talk to, and the more I got to know him, the more we found we agreed with each other about a lot of things. I realized I could use someone near me who understood the way I think and could help explain what I say.”
“Will he be able to tell you when you’re the problem, Mr. President?”
“That’s a myth,” the president shot back. “This is what happens when you really try to change things. I’ve had two historians tell me I’ve accomplished more in the first four months than any other recent president.”
Clinton had just delivered an eloquent speech honoring R.F.K. which contained the refrain “We can do better” (columnist Mary McGrory wrote that he seemed to be delivering it to himself). Nevertheless, by bringing in Gergen, whom he had met in 1984 at the Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina—an annual schmoozefest where aging boomers ring in the New Year by paneling till they drop—the president was signaling to official Washington not only that the Clintonites finally realized they were in desperate shape, but also that from now on one of their own would be in the fold. Amazingly, Gergen is the only person in the upper echelon, except for foreign-policy figures, who has ever had any White House experience.
Unlike McLarty, whose background is in the family car dealerships and the natural-gas business in Arkansas, David Gergen—Yale undergraduate, Harvard Law School—is a Washington insider. He instinctively understands that Pat Moynihan is not particularly susceptible to courtly southern flattery, and that good-ol’-boy purring, which plays well with southern senators, will not fill the decision gap. Gergen has been training all his adult life in what he calls “the basic courtesies” of the town. Despite having a reputation like the president’s for being chronically late and extremely disorganized, he can construct the perfect sound bite on cue, and he knows when to talk to the press, whom to call on the Hill. Does it really matter if you find his administration-hopping distasteful? At least David Gergen’s got rhythm.
It is, of course, the peculiar Washington rhythm that keeps the process flowing—and the process keeps the institutions going. The rhythm in the capital is far more important than the buzz—which is that so far, despite all those little gold saxophones the F.O.B.’s wear, the Clintons have been tone-deaf, and, thank God, maybe the finely attuned Gergen can help, because it doesn’t much matter to Establishment Washington whether you’re labeled Democrat or Republican as long as you’re one of them and can feel the inside-the-Beltway beat. “I can maybe translate a little of the city to them,” Gergen avers of the First Couple. The pundits call this “avoiding another failed presidency” and “thinking that the country is becoming ungovernable.” Gergen buys into that totally; he can clear his throat with the best of them. In his makeshift basement office in the White House’s West Wing, which used to be the barber shop—if it still were, he might not have this job—he immediately starts speaking Washingtonese: “Bill Schneider [the quote-a-minute utility sound-biter of CNN and the American Enterprise Institute] put it well this week in something he said: ‘It’s not a question of moving right or left, it’s a question of moving forward.’ ” (To much of Washington, which has been traveling distinctly to the right in the last 12 years, motion is an end in itself.)
Ironically, however, North Carolina-bred David Gergen, for all his Establishment connections—the right schools, memberships at the world’s most exclusive male-bonding enclaves, such as the Bohemian Club, which he was recently forced to give up—and for all his genuflections to the seats of the mighty, is really almost always in there as an outsider: Mr. Inside Out.
“The key thing is: he’s always survived in the White House not necessarily by being an insider,” says Ed Rollins, who was political director in the Reagan White House. “He was always suspect as a Democrat in Nixon’s White House, a Bush-Baker Republican in Reagan’s White House, and today he falls into the same category. He hasn’t had pleasant experiences in the White House; he’s had lots of intrigue and battles against him.” “He’s not a good political game player—he’s a little blind about it,” says ABC News vice president Joanna Bistany, who was Gergen’s assistant in the Reagan White House. “You’d have to say, ‘David, this guy’s out to get you,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, do you think so?’ “
As communications director for Reagan under his mentor, James Baker, who was Reagan’s first chief of staff, Gergen was in constant combat with Larry Speakes, the press secretary, who nicknamed him Tall and refused to speak to reporters who dared go to Gergen for anything. “It was continual guerrilla warfare between us,” says Speakes, who always thought Gergen wanted his job “and worked on Baker for it.” Speakes called Bistany “the spy” after Gergen stationed her in a room with a Xerox machine on which reporters used to copy their expense accounts. In 1984, Gergen, who had a reputation as a major leaker, finally had to leave. “Larry wasn’t up to the job,” says Rollins, “but Jim Baker didn’t want a strong press secretary. He spent 35 hours a week briefing the press himself.”
A workaholic, Gergen rarely spent much time with his family, and he and Bistany would work late into the night, giving rise to rumors that they were an item. “There were tons of rumors about David and me,” says Bistany. “I wasn’t the first and I wasn’t the last. There were rumors about David and women going back to the Nixon administration. David likes women—he respects them. He likes having women work for him. He’d say to me, ‘If I have two people in front of me, and one of them is a man and one is a woman, I’ll hire the woman, because I know the woman will work her heart out to prove herself.’ He believes strongly in pushing women up the ladder.”
The men might be more difficult. “I don’t feel bad about doing this, because this is exactly what he used to do to people,” confides a former colleague who wants to dump all over Gergen anonymously—another Washington tradition. Never mind. In a rare on-the-record chorus, true-blue Republicans who feel betrayed by David Gergen’s defection are lined up to speak. This man of the center, they say, is hollow, and he leaks. “The sieve is back!” former Reagan press secretary James Brady reportedly cracked to friends as Washington’s G.O.P. phone lines melted down from overload at the news of Gergen’s appointment on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. “I don’t think Clinton believes in a great deal, but he believes a great deal more than Gergen,” columnist Robert Novak huffs in far-righteous indignation. “I don’t believe for a minute he won’t be out there briefing in a couple of weeks,” says George Bush’s press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater. “He wants the limelight.”
However derogatory the G.O.P. may be toward Gergen, it’s nothing compared with the shellacking the president takes from those major insiders who watch in horrified fascination as he lurches from one banana peel to another. This is David Gergen’s new challenge: to teach these flat feet how to dance. But if Gergen is being called in to be a political Miss Manners, they sniff, it is already too late.
“This sense that Gergen’s the panacea—nothing could be more ridiculous. P.R. and communications are the least of the problems. The president’s lack of discipline is the big problem,” says Al Hunt, Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal and moderator of CNN’s Capital Gang. “The counselor’s office is worthless; personnel is in paralysis; the political office is a sham; the intergovernmental-relations office doesn’t know what intergovernmental relations are. Congressional relations has no depth, no tough-ass to tell people [on the Hill] what to do. The president has no discipline himself. And David Gergen’s gonna solve all that? It’s preposterous.”
Mack McLarty wouldn’t put it quite like that. A small, immaculate man— fifth-generation Hope, Arkansas, with penetrating blue eyes—he sits in his large, sunny office, down the hall from the Oval Office, and patiently explains in splendid understatement that it was his idea to bring David Gergen in, because “I think there was a recognition that press relations were not as positively constructed as we would like.” No matter that the charismatic George Stephanopoulos had emerged as a star inside and outside the White House; there was no rhythm, no “chemistry” between him and the temperamental divas of the White House press corps, who rarely hit any high notes when George was briefing. “George is one of those people of whom you have to ask the right question in precisely the right words, and if it is even one millimeter off, he won’t answer,” said New York Times White House correspondent Gwen Ifill. “Are you saying he toyed with the press?” I asked. “Yes, he did. His attitude was always: I’m smarter than you and I’m younger than you, heh, heh, heh.”
As long ago as April, McLarty said, he and Stephanopoulos, who was trying to do three jobs at once, discussed the possibility of Stephanopoulos’s giving up the communications job. “I could call my memoirs From Zoe to Lani,” jokes Stephanopoulos. By May, McLarty continued, “it became clear to me the president had developed his thoughts and really missed George being available as a senior adviser—a role George played in the campaign.” He said he suggested that they “formalize George’s role as a senior adviser, reporting to me and to the president.” How did the president react? “The president kind of lit up,” he said. “I’m looking at you right in the eye,” McLarty admonished, “and saying that this is a promotion for George.”
“I feel very comfortable about the job I did,” Stephanopoulos tells me. However hurt and betrayed Stephanopoulos’s young acolytes may have felt in having Gergen’s appointment announced so that it caused confusion about the celestial placement of their boss, Stephanopoulos seemed relieved to be back at Clinton’s side all day. “I feel very comfortable about the job I’m going to do and the interim.” All the gossip concerning the idea that he had to fall on his sword for his boss is dismissed. “It doesn’t matter. None of it matters, because I’m only 32 years old.” Will he at least concede that he was arrogant? “You can’t leak on your boss,” says Stephanopoulos. “I didn’t feel I was arrogant. I felt I was overworked. Nobody can be aware of all things at all times. I thought I was trying.”
Late Sunday night, April 25, the awful week of the Waco, Texas, inferno having just passed, the White House operator reached David Gergen at home. “Hi, this is Bill.”
Gergen and the president had met at the 1984 Renaissance Weekend, when they were both on a panel to discuss the topic “Things I Didn’t Do.” Gergen spoke about why he didn’t leave the Nixon White House, and Clinton spoke about why he didn’t run for president. They had become friendly again at the most recent Renaissance Weekend, when the place was mobbed with hundreds of F.O.B.’s. Gergen, having just returned from a three-day Aspen Institute seminar which had visited South-Central Los Angeles, gave an impassioned New Year’s toast-cum-lecture in front of the president-elect on deteriorating race relations. The toast turned off a number of Democratic Party operatives, who felt that Gergen bore more than a little responsibility for the state of the union and was coming rather late to the cause.
Nevertheless, throughout the weekend Gergen was seen chatting with both Bill and Hillary Clinton. And during the transition, he had flown to Little Rock to meet with Stephanopoulos, at the transition team’s request, to advise on how to set up the communications office. To his disappointment, Gergen never got to see Clinton that weekend, and, ironically, Clinton’s houseguest was Bill Moyers, an old Gergen nemesis. Early in the Reagan years, Moyers had made a CBS documentary, People Like Us, about the needy, who, as a result of Reagan’s cutbacks, fell through the social safety net. Gergen had gone ballistic at the time and labeled it “below the belt.” Today he says, “I still think there was an imbalance.”
The night he spoke with the president, Gergen told me, “we had a very much heart-to-heart about cultural Washington, about what he was going through. It was clear he was frustrated. He’d never run into anything like this in politics before. Throughout his governorship, he was never accused of having an incompetent operation.” Washington was proving far more difficult to handle than the Comeback Kid had ever imagined. “He was searching for some understanding of what was happening—how this city worked. What happens in this new world of the press? What happens in this new world of the Congress?”
The next week, Gergen wrote a characteristic column called “Give Clinton a Chance,” in which he reported that when Waco exploded the president “three times suggested to the staff that day that he speak up, and was urged to wait until the facts were clear.” He did not write that he had spoken directly to the president, but he did tell his editors. “It was quite a delicate problem for me,” said Gergen somewhat grandly. “He’s a friend, and I was aware there was a tradition like that. I mean, Ben Bradlee used to talk to Jack Kennedy like that all the time.”
Eleven days earlier, on April 14, Gergen had run into the president in the White House mess, where Gergen was lunching with Mack McLarty. The president complimented Gergen, a navy veteran who labels himself “very pro-military,” on a column he had written encouraging Clinton to “build better ties to the military,” and predicting confidently that “Clinton will surely turn out to be a better commander-in-chief than most troops now think.” Gergen said the president told him it was the best advice on the military he’d gotten.
Gergen and McLarty were just becoming acquainted. They had met on March 26 at another traditional Washington insiders’ do, the annual New York Times cocktail party given the night before the Gridiron dinner, the ultimate nexus of politics, media, and publishing.
McLarty liked Gergen, he says, and respected his ideas. No wonder. Gergen, ever deeply respectful of the presidency, has always given Clinton a lot of slack; last summer he wrote a column criticizing the “attack-dog journalism” covering the candidate. “I read very carefully his more recent writings on Clinton, and he’s generally been supportive. Of course, his politics are those of moderation, and where he was critical he’s always been constructively critical. So I recommended to the president David Gergen.”
Significantly, the discussion about Gergen took place during the week of May 17 to 23, the week the president got his infamous haircut aboard Air Force One the same night he gave a tour of the plane to a group of Hollywood celebrities; the week of Travelgate, when it was revealed that the White House was firing the employees of its Travel Office and that a cousin of the president’s was going to be put in charge there instead; the week it came out that it was Arkansan TV producer and close friend of the president Harry Thomason who had called the White House to lobby on behalf of friends in the air-charter industry and to complain that they were being shut out of the bidding for White House travel contracts; the week leading up to one of George Stephanopoulos’s worst moments before the press, when he was forced to disclose that the White House had called in the F.B.I. in what appeared to be an attempt to justify its Travelgate actions; the week it was recalled that Thomason’s spouse-partner, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, had introduced the Clintons to Beverly Hills coiffeur Cristophe, the barber on Air Force One that night, and that Cristophe had been flying across the country at $2,000 a clip to make up Hillary Clinton for magazine covers; the week Thomason and his wife freelanced their own embarrassing Hee Haw media blitz, proclaiming themselves very un-Hollywood and extremely rich and declaring total sympathy for such past presidential friends in the soup as Bebe Rebozo and Bert Lance. It was as if Elvis were back—in the White House.
Sadly, many of these missteps could have been easily avoided. One of the advantages of having an open-door policy in the White House briefing room, presidential correspondents point out, is that it allows the administration to hear “the morning buzz” from reporters about how stories are going to be played. But the administration people had shut themselves off, openly announcing from the beginning that they were going to work around the White House press corps. “The president decided the White House press corps was expendable,” says their dean, U.P.I.’s Helen Thomas. Waco was proof of that folly, and when more bad news came with Hairgate and Travelgate, the Clinton crew had no one in the pressroom to give them the benefit of the doubt as the negative coverage continued to pile on. “On the day of the Waco tragedy, the White House misjudged how the story was being reacted to,” says Susan Page, Newsday‘s White House correspondent. “Their instinct was to protect the president from recrimination, when in fact he should have stood up and taken responsibility, the way Janet Reno did. If their antennae had been better, they would have understood that from the git-go. As it was, Clinton ended up taking a hit.”
Too many hits, obviously. In the middle of the maelstrom, McLarty raised the idea with the president of bringing Gergen aboard “the rolling deck,” as Gergen refers to the White House. Bill Clinton was caught off guard. “It took him back a little bit—it is an innovation,” says McLarty. “Then he said, ‘I think that’s a very good idea. Do you think he might be interested?’ “
McLarty reached Gergen on Sunday, May 23. Gergen and his wife, Ann, a mental-health counselor, had spent the weekend at yet another high-level floating seminar Gergen was part of, a bipartisan panel studying health care, chaired by Senators Sam Nunn and Peter Domenici. When Gergen heard the White House operator, he turned to his wife and said, “I bet they’re looking for help.”
Sure enough. ”It sounded like it was going to be the Mack approach to the Clinton conversation,” Gergen told me. “He said, ‘We really need somebody here who will be at the intersection of policy, politics, and communications. Do you know anybody who would fit that bill?'”
Behind that request, said Gergen, was a belated recognition that the Washington establishment was alien and unfriendly, and that the president was being “unfairly brutalized.” They needed someone “to help translate what Washington is all about to them.”
“Did you suggest to either the president or McLarty that the problem just might rest with the president himself?”
“No,” Gergen admitted, but he thought that they were familiar with his writings, which raised the question of the president’s “core beliefs.” On the phone he said, “What you are communicating is a lack of core. There is no central thrust, and it’s not clear what he stands for. And that the Bill Clinton I knew was getting lost in this picture. It’s a very fuzzy picture of the person I thought I knew.” Before they hung up, Gergen promised he’d think of three or four names and suggest them. He never did.
On Tuesday, May 25, Gergen picked up his voice mail from a Chevron station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was speaking to a group of bank managers. Gergen has been earning several hundred thousand dollars a year lately by explaining how Washington works to such groups. There was a message from McLarty, and when he called him back, they talked for a half-hour. “It was then he offered the job. He offered it straight up. He said, ‘We would like to have you do this.’ “
The next day Gergen went into the offices of U.S. News & World Report and told Michael Ruby and Merrill McLoughlin, the husband-and-wife team who edit the magazine, as well as his closest confidante there, director of editorial administration Kathryn Bushkin, that he had begun a conversation about going to work at the White House.
After the first startled moment, Bushkin said, they thought, “Yes, that would be really smart. Second, we thought, What a loss; and, third, we wanted to know: Is this good for Dave?” They agreed that he should be an adviser, not the communications director. “It’s a little awkward for a Republican to be a spokesman for a Democratic president,” said Bushkin, who once worked as press secretary to Gary Hart. Gergen also confided his conversation to U.S. News’sowner, Mort Zuckerman, and to his friend Kenneth Duberstein, White House chief of staff during Reagan’s second term, as well as Joanna Bistany. All advised him that (1) he needed direct access to the president, and (2) Hillary Rodham Clinton had to be in favor of the move.
Deep inside the White House, the First Lady’s nickname is the H-bomb. Gergen has remained friendly with another strong First Lady, Nancy Reagan, but Hillary Clinton, he said, is “quite different…. Both have an enormous amount of influence over their husband’s thinking. Both are relied on heavily for their counsel. Both are seen as anchors. Hillary Clinton’s much more involved in the day-to-day.” McLarty had assured Gergen that Hillary Clinton was all for the plan. They made a date to have dinner at McLarty’s house on Thursday night. “If the pieces fit,” Bushkin told me, he had decided to take the job.
Behind his decision, Gergen said, was a sense of personal responsibility: “Social conditions in the country are deteriorating.” While trying to acquire his journalistic “voice” over the last decade, Gergen said, he’s gone out into the countryside and actually gotten to know Democrats for the first time, and while he was not willing to disavow his former service to the economic and social policies which caused the income for the bottom fifth of the population to drop by 4.6 percent from 1980 to 1991 while the income of the upper 5 percent of the population increased by 21.4 percent, he did say that “those of us who had the privilege to serve in the last two decades haven’t served the country well.” Was this a new spin to the old Gergen? Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Hillary Rodham Clinton couldn’t have said it better. “We’re becoming two nations,” he said. “And it’s very serious, and it has to do with training. It has a lot to do with education. It has a lot to do with the safety net. It has a lot to do with changing the culture.
“I’m not taking any shots at Reagan or Ford or Nixon. They were enormously kind to me. Life has been very good to me. I can’t walk away from that. It would be unethical of me to take on the Republicans, but I do feel that this city has failed. … I think we live lives of privilege, we are all paid extraordinarily well, we all live well, we have lots of power and perks. And if you go around the rest of the country, you see a country that is falling apart for most people.” Gergen, whose face flushed red at the thought, said, “I don’t mean to get up on my high horse about it, but I feel strongly we’re playing games, you know.”
On the night of Thursday, May 27, the House voted on the president’s budget package, which squeaked through by six votes. At 10 o’clock, on his way out of the White House, McLarty raised the subject of Gergen for the first time with George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos insists that the reports that he hit the ceiling when he heard the news are not true. Stephanopoulos says that he knew the multifold job he was supposed to be doing “was not getting done. I was stretched too thin.” “He may have been a little bit surprised,” concedes McLarty. Gergen and McLarty then met at McLarty’s house, ate cold roast beef, and talked until 1:30 a.m.—about, among other things, having “clarity in your message,” says McLarty, and “an acknowledgment we could do better.” During dinner, the president called and asked Gergen if he wanted to come over and see him that night. Instead, Gergen made a date to go to the White House to talk to the president, the vice president, and the First Lady the following evening.
The news about Gergen and Stephanopoulos began to leak on Friday. “The kids” in the White House communications office were in a state of shock at realizing that “a grown-up” would suddenly be in their midst, an alien Republican grown-up, who had spent his youth working inside the Watergate White House with Tricky Dick. At 7:30 P.M., Stephanopoulos called a meeting of about 10 of his troops, saying, “I’m going to be having these new responsibilities for the president. It’s important we make it work…. We need to tighten things up.” Interestingly, the one person Stephanopoulos had not yet heard from was the president himself. Stephanopoulos was finally called by Clinton around 10 Friday night.
But the deal had not actually been done. Gergen wanted his sit-downs first. McLarty had to fly home to Hope to deliver a commencement address. Gergen talked to Vice President Gore by phone during the day and saw the First Lady alone in the family quarters at 10 P.M. Gergen said they talked about the central philosophy of the presidency.
“I said, ‘Look, there’s this perception on the outside that he’s the centrist and you’re pulling him off to the left all the time, and that’s why there’s all this conflict. I want to talk about that.’ She said, ‘It’s just wrong, and here’s where I’m coming from and what I’m doing and where I think he ought to be going.'” Gergen said she knew that press relations had “deteriorated,” and she thought “the press didn’t know them as people very well.”
I mentioned to Gergen that many insiders view it as a co-presidency. “I don’t think it’s a co-presidency. I think that’s a perception—that’s what I wondered when I came in here,” said Gergen. “I see it much less that way now that I’m here. But I do think she’s a very, very important adviser.”
Gergen and Hillary Rodham Clinton talked until 11 P.M., when the president arrived. She went to bed around 11:15. The president and Gergen, who are both known as talky night owls, didn’t finish their conversation until almost two. The president said, “I need you here. I’d really like to have you here.” “He was very persuasive,” Gergen told me. At the end of the talk Gergen said, “I’ll do it.”
The man who had helped script the Republican convention of 1972—where Nixon delegates spat on paralyzed anti-war Vietnam vets, while Bill Clinton was managing George McGovern’s anti-war campaign in Texas—the man who kept a picture of General Alexander Haig on his office wall in the Reagan White House, the man in whose file Jimmy Carter’s 1980-debate briefing book was found (under “Afghanistan”) after it was revealed that the book had mysteriously come into the possession of the Reagan campaign before the debate, David Richmond Gergen was going to go to work for his fourth president, the self-proclaimed “New Democrat” of Arkansas.
“If they had asked me at the beginning of the administration to do this job, I would have probably said no,” Gergen said. Over the years David Gergen had changed positions, changed parties, changed sides. His membership in 17 top-drawer institutions, clubs, organizations, and boards—all of which he recently resigned from—did not seem to complete him. He was a man without a mission who wanted a mission, or at least some action. Why, he wonders, should he get nailed for that? “The only thing I’m trying to say is, since leaving government—from 1984 until now—it’s been nine years, a long time. That is certainly as important to me as the time I spent in government in terms of forming who I am.”
He grew up in Durham, the youngest of four boys, whose parents had moved south when his father began teaching in the math department at Duke University. He rejected Andover for Durham High and followed two brothers to Yale. Much has been made of the similarities between Gergen and Clinton—the disorganized man who runs three hours late trying to tame the undisciplined man who is rarely on time. Several years ago, Gergen even failed to show up on time to host an already late Governor Bill Clinton at a lunch on Capitol Hill. But although they are only five years apart in age, David Gergen and Bill Clinton represent a distinct generation gap.
On the Yale campus, where he was managing editor of the Yale Daily News, he was hardly a B.M.O.C., as Clinton was at Georgetown, “not part of the eastern establishment that still set the tone of Yale in the early 60s,” says his classmate Ridgway Hall, who characterizes Gergen then as “thoughtful and quiet.” Certainly he never identified with the counterculture. During those years that Bill Clinton was at Oxford not inhaling, Gergen was with the U.S. Navy in Asia, at a safe remove. “I missed Woodstock,” Gergen said. “There’s a gap in my culture.” Considering the polarized times, it probably didn’t matter much then if the unhip Gergen voted for Hubert Humphrey before he came to Washington to work on helping design the draft lottery, which a short time later would cause young Bill Clinton such angst. His boss, Ray Price, remembers no philosophical disconnect. “I don’t think anyone considered him a McGovemite, and I don’t recall him telling me he voted for Humphrey,” says Price. “He was generally philosophically in tune with us.”
Leonard Garment, who was White House counsel for Nixon, says Gergen was “one of the early alarm-system people on Watergate,” someone who impressed him. “There was something at the core of this young man other than ambition.” Gergen, however, stayed to the bitter end. “You know, the cover-up worked better inside the White House than anywhere else,” he explained to me. “I thought it was the cowardly thing to do to walk out.”
Under James Baker, Gergen got the reputation of being the Prince of Leaks. The White House staff was divided between the pragmatists, led by Baker, and the ideologues, led by Ed Meese. “Baker and I and [Baker protege Richard] Darman—we had an aggressive strategy to try to put our spin on stories, to get the word out as to what we wanted out about the presidency,” said Gergen, who doesn’t feel he was disloyal to the president the way the conservatives do. There were more than a few snickers around the pressroom, however, when Reagan one day announced that he had had it “up to his keister” with leaks, and dispatched none other than the Prince of Leaks himself to relay the message to the press corps. “He was not the best source in the White House, because he was not the closest in,” says The New York Times’s Steven R. Weisman, who covered the administration at the time and was widely believed to be Gergen’s favorite recipient of leaks. “I think Baker and—for me— Deaver, especially, and Rollins and Atwater leaked just as much. It was a leaky White House, because it was always at war with itself.”
“When I came out of government in ’84, I was penniless. I had been in the government a lot, and we had nothing saved,” Gergen said. As his son and daughter were getting ready to go to college, “I got heavily into the speech circuit.” He landed at U.S. News & World Report, first as a consultant and then as a managing editor, at a tumultuous time in 1985, soon after real-estate tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman bought the magazine. Once again David Gergen was the outsider. Neither he nor Zuckerman knew anything about producing a weekly newsmagazine, but that didn’t prevent Gergen from going after the editorship and spending hours on end thinking of ways to please Zuckerman. “He and Kathy Bushkin functioned like Batman and Robin,” says one editor. “They started a big campaign to whisper in Mort’s ear to get Mort to name Dave.” In 1986, Zuckerman did. Now added to Gergen’s burdens was an endlessly interfering Zuckerman. Says one insider, “Thirty years ago people would wake up and say, ‘Gee, I wonder what Walter Lippmann thinks of so-and-so.’ Well, that’s Mort’s fantasy—he wants people to wake up and say, ‘I wonder what Mort Zuckerman thinks.’ ” “Dave had a paralyzing fear of Zuckerman,” says former managing editor and design consultant Edwin Taylor. “You could always tell when Zuckerman had called, because it always led to changes.”
Gergen, other co-workers say, had a great sense of news, a good nose for trends, and a wide range of contacts, and many people liked him. But he would focus on the magazine product only at the last minute. There were endless meetings, and the staff was thrown into turmoil. “After two or three months, Dave realized his habits were not those of an editor,” says Marvin Stone, the former editor and chairman, who had hired him and presided over the sale of the magazine to Zuckerman. “He wanted to do speeches and columns, and get on TV. You couldn’t do that sitting in an editor’s chair.” It would be another frustrating two years, however, before Zuckerman, under the pretense of learning that Gergen was talking to ABC News about a job, replaced him as editor with Roger Rosenblatt, who is now a contributing editor of Vanity Fair. Gergen became editor-at-large, a position he held until he went to work for Clinton, and the arrangement worked to mutual benefit. He got visibility and a chance to become a member of the commentariat. The magazine got a knowledgeable, high-profile spokesman.
On the night of Monday, June 7, the first official day of David Gergen’s new employ, the president had a meeting in the Oval Office with Senators Mitchell and Moynihan to discuss the budget bill. The president and vice president sat in straight-backed chairs, facing a coffee table. On either side was a sofa, one for the high administration people—McLarty, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, and Budget Director Panetta—and the other for the two senators. David Gergen, like George Stephanopoulos, was consigned to a staff chair against the wall. But Gergen didn’t stay there long. He picked up his chair and moved it to the opposite end of the sofas.
“So now the president and vice president are looking at him,” says an observer, who adds, “Gergen is a pro. He knows exactly where to put the chair to show that he is not one of the principals, but now he’s not one of these guys against the wall, either. George Stephanopoulos, meanwhile, is forced to get up to hand McLarty notes and then go back and sit down. Finally, George just gets up and stands at the corner of the couch and conducts his business from there—standing up.”
Yet the new arrangement seems to be working. There is a new Big Five advising the president: the troika of McLarty, Stephanopoulos, and Gergen, plus the First Lady and Al Gore. The first call Gergen made, when he got back from a Memorial Day holiday after the announcement, was to Stephanopoulos, from the Baltimore airport. The two “nonideological technocrats” have bonded. “We finish each other’s sentences now,” enthused Gergen, who also admitted, “It’s hard. I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster since I’ve been here.”
“There are always lots of sharks in the White House pool,” says Michael Deaver. “Look, my model here today is Jim Baker,” Says Gergen, citing a different kind of cold-blooded creature. “When I’m sitting here in the various meetings, I keep thinking to myself, What would Baker do? How would he handle this?”
“And look what Baker did,” I say. “He came in a staff person and went out a senior statesman.”
“I don’t feel that would be bad, of course,” replies Gergen earnestly. “I worked with good chiefs of staff. I worked with Al Haig [under Nixon], I worked with Dick Cheney [under Ford]. Dick Cheney was wonderful. I would never be in a campaign against Dick Cheney.” Former secretary of defense Cheney, of course, is often mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate to run against Bill Clinton in 1996. What would Gergen do? “I don’t want to be involved in the campaign—I’d feel very uncomfortable. But if somebody goes after me with a pitchfork, I guess things could change.” Next year the Democrats will have to make an all-out push to hold their majority in the Senate. Where will Gergen be? The ultimate irony, of course, will be for Gergen to do for Clinton what Baker helped do for Reagan—lay the groundwork for a twoterm presidency. “I did not come to make this a lifetime tenure. I think sometime between now and the State of the Union in 1996 that my usefulness will come to an end.” Meanwhile, Bill Clinton will continue to argue for a reversal of the Reagan revolution—with David Gergen at his side.
It’s all in a day’s work for Mr. Inside Out.