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Book review: Eyewitness to Power

Posted November 18, 2014

Eyewitness to Power

— The secret to good and accurate reporting?


To the reporter, for a story to be well told and with accuracy, it’s the difference between a lock and a key.

And for his insightful book "Eyewitness to Power" (2000), David Gergen, who served as a White House insider during four presidencies—Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton—well, he had that key.

His access afforded him—almost like no other— an up close view of the trials, tribulations, flaws, and strengths of these leaders and the power brokers who advised them.

Were there some closer to these presidents than Gergen? Absolutely. Have cronies, confidants, adversaries, reporters, hacks and serious historians recorded/written accounts— from inside and out—about these American commanders-in-chief?

Everyone from Kissinger and Schlesinger to Woodward and Bernstein put their pens to them and in them. All four presidents wrote this history as they lived and saw it (with Reagan’s work being more of a life story). So why pull Eyewitness to Power, the account of a self-admitted White House staffer, from shelves supporting the presumed heavy-weight books by and about the aforementioned presidents?

Well, Eyewitness to Power isn’t a rehash of these four presidencies. Granted, it’s loaded with their history, but is more so a handbook about leadership, an honest, intelligent assessment as to what the men became —personally, politically, psychologically, morally—when the world’s weight fell on the highest office in the land and why their styles of leadership worked or failed.

Gergen, a senior political analyst for CNN, serves as Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership and is Professor of Public Service at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Modest to a fault in the writing, Gergen’s greatest claim to fame (in the book) is the fact that he wasn’t one of the famous or the infamous. He was, again, a speech writer with a variety of talents, titles, and responsibilities—Special Counsel to the President to Communications Director. So although doors to the presidents’ men were open to him, he was not always in these presidents’ most inner circles, but one who was in fact—often—in the contributor’s club.

As we share Gergen’s view, it becomes evident that there are times when it pays to be the ghost in the room, especially when one is gathering history that when written (years later) focuses on a president’s leadership or failure to lead. The strength of this book is the fact that one doesn’t have to read between the lines here to learn the ABCs of governance—these lessons in leadership are never more than a page turn away.

And there are bonuses. We get a well focused wide angle view of the political machines and machinists in action; learn about the craft (and purpose) of speech writing and the importance of working and working with the media. Gergen tells us who had the ear of these presidents (pushing buttons both positive and negative), who had the juice on Capitol Hill. And the reading—in this reader’s case—leaves us with fresh opinions of these people of power.

The intention of Page Turners from the Past isn’t to present all of David Gergen’s views and insights into the presidencies and leadership. The hope here is that this sampling of Gergen’s thoughts on Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, how they led and at times were misled, will bring readers to the 352 pages of Eyewitness to Power.

You’ll see Nixon’s inner steel, his tremendous grasp of history and how he predicts the world’s future. Gergen reminds us that it was Nixon who knew it would be the U.S.’s leadership, how we structured our relations with others—a newly emerging China, a revived Russia, a united Europe, and a resurgent Japan—that would be the key to world peace. And then through this eyewitness view we get insights into this leader’s tragic flaws and character, faults which were Shakespearian in that they—the “handling” of Vietnam and Watergate—in the end placed a presidency and nation center stage in a tragedy of failed leadership.

Here’s Gergen’s candid (positive) recollection of that Nixon steel: “There were times when some of us on the staff thought he went too far. Over the Christmas of 1972—when peace seemed almost within grasp in Vietnam—Nixon ordered up relentless bombing campaigns against Haiphong Harbor, sending protesters into the streets and the press into hyperventilations. So prolonged was the bombing that we worried it was killing innocent people—and perhaps our chances for peace. Had he finally careened over the edge? As it turned out, I was also one of those who was wrong. His hard nose forced the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table. Steel does matter—both external and internal—as I came to learn.”

As to the Ford administration we are privy to this insider’s perspective of the early days when the old footballer drops the ball by springing the Nixon pardon on the American people. He had sent other signals during his visits to Capitol Hill and to the voters. Gergen lets us know that the sudden decision to pardon may have been the right thing to do—with wrong timing—as Ford’s intent wasn’t a pre-cut deal with Nixon or—as many citizens/voters thought—a concern for the former president’s health.

Ford’s reasoning was simply—on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate—that of a new president’s desire to go about the business of enabling America, to move the country forward as opposed to wading through misspent months in the courts with the trying of a deposed president. This faux pas of the mistimed announcement came at a crucial time as the first months in office are key (we learn) to the success of a presidency. Ford, an ethical and intelligent man, would never regain the confidence of America.

As to the Reagan White House, well, what Communications Director wouldn’t want to work with a Great Communicator? And Gergen’s fascination with Ronald Reagan (as he skillfully gives readers that view of the man) makes for some of the most compelling reading in the work.

We learn that The Great Communicator came to the office armed, ready to govern, and with well-formed ideas. He had a willingness to share the credit, and came equipped with a unique kind of intelligence—the stuff that makes, says Gergen, for great presidencies.

Gergen relates the role that the Reagan camaraderie plays in leadership, informing us that no president in American history made more personal calls on the members of Congress and the U.S. Senate than Ronald Reagan. New to the Washington scene he made it a point to make nice with the media. The fact that Reagan’s years in Hollywood made him a natural in front of a microphone or TV camera, that he was a great yarn spinner, telling tales making simplistic but important points, was a tremendous asset when he needed the support of the American people.

As Gergen attempts to better understand Reagan and his thought patterns, he refers to Daniel Goleman’s term EQ, (emotional intelligence), stating that Reagan clearly had it and that, according to the research, most good leaders—corporate, political, etc.—have this gift as well. Reagan, who was often criticized for his lack of intellect, had this incredible ability to relate to others, what some might refer to as temperament.

If his cognitive scores were less than one might expect of a president, then his EQ soared off the charts. Ronald Reagan was self-aware, self-regulated, self-motivated, and had the ability to read others. This gift for relating to people enabled him to lead by inspiring trust.

“Ronald Reagan never pretended to be an intellectual and never bothered to read much political philosophy. Yet his ideas probably changed the world as much as those of any other political leader in the late twentieth century. I was told that Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘He only had five or six ideas, but all of them were big and all of them were good.’ While others may disagree about their quality, there is little doubt about their impact,” Gergen says.

Having served three Republican presidents, Gergen, a moderate Republican, takes a major bi-partisan leap (which came equipped with criticism from the party he’d served) by accepting Bill Clinton’s call for help, agreeing to serve as Counselor to the President. He, as the position was described, would be in Clinton’s inner circle. Gergen, introspective almost to the point of self-deprecation, examines his acceptance to the call to duty— everything from personal ego to the obvious opportunity to serve one’s country.

Clinton, intrigued by Gergen’s editorials in U.S. News & World Report urging various courses of action on the administration, also sought his influence with the media and as a potential door-opener to the right.

Gergen liked and respected Bill Clinton for his political acumen, his intellect and brilliance, and had seen eye-to-eye with him during his governorship as he tackled tough issues—economic development, reforms in education and race. When Clinton called him to service he thought he knew the president.

“. . .a year and a half later, after working and talking to him almost every day, I was honored that he had asked, respected his accomplishments, and wanted him to succeed—but felt I no longer knew who he was,” Gergen allows.

In retrospect he refers to Clinton as a mass of contradictions: ”. . . one of the smartest men ever elected president who did some of the dumbest things. He had a deeper knowledge of history than most of his predecessors and used less of it. He genuinely wanted as he pledged to have ‘the most ethical administration in history,’ and enters history as the first elected president ever impeached.”

In the end, Clinton’s well-known gift for seduction (not just those women he “never had sex with”) was his MO. “Clinton seduced everyone,” Gergen says.

The summary of the Clinton presidency and the man as a president—who he was, why he was, and how he was—is well documented, a plateful—of successes and failures—to digest. That said, we’ll serve up this Gergen “Nixon/Clinton hors d’oeuvre” as food for thought.

“Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were the two most gifted presidents of the past thirty years. Each was inordinately bright, well-read, and politically savvy. Each reveled in power. Nixon was the best strategist in the office since Eisenhower and possibly since Woodrow Wilson; Clinton was the best tactician since Lyndon Johnson and possibly Roosevelt. Yet each was the author of his own downfall. Nixon let his demons gain ascendance, and Clinton could not manage his fault lines in his character. They were living proof that before mastering the world, a leader must achieve self-mastery. Or, as Heraclitus put it more succinctly, “Character is destiny,” says Gergen.

This said, the book is written with great respect for our presidents. “Our culture is too quick to tear down our presidents once they are in office. All six of the men I have known in the office—from Nixon to Clinton—have been patriots who cared deeply about the fate of the country. Several of them made terrible blunders, but they all struggled and fought to create a better world. We would not be at peace today, enjoying a chance for a golden future, had they not been men of accomplishment as well,” Gergen says.

In the end the book’s Seven Lessons of Leadership remind us of the ever underlying messages regarding good guidance. But it also should be noted that EWTP’s readers will turn the final page knowing these presidents like they never knew them before. Strong, even-handed opinions and Gergen’s up-close eyewitness-to-power anecdotes not only entertain but illuminate the Oval Offices of the four presidents—Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton—and do so in spotlights that vary, ranging from bright to dim to very dark.

You can ask for Eyewitness to Power at your local library, purchase it through your independent bookseller or pick it up on Amazon used, in paperback or hardback, for less than your average recently re-elected politician plinks in the collection plate on a Sunday morning. 


Bob Cairns runs the site "Page Turners from the Past," a website devoted to bringing readers reviews of older books that deserve a good dusting off! His reviews will be featured once a month on WRAL.com. 


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