To say that David Gergen has done it all when it comes to American politics and public service would be an understatement— his bio includes Presidential adviser, commentator, teacher, editor, public servant, best-selling author and TV news personality.
I caught up with Gergen in a recent phone interview prior to his visit to Chicago May 18 to speak at a JUF Women’s Division event. I was curious to hear his take on the first months of the Obama administration, his opinion about his daughter's conversion to Judaism and what it was like to serve both republican and democratic presidents.
Of all you’ve accomplished as a political and presidential advisor, educator, journalist, author and public servant, what have you found most rewarding?
It’s an enormous privilege for any citizen to serve a President in the White House and so I’ve been wonderfully blessed in life by serving under four different presidents. But some of my most rewarding moments go back to an earlier time in my life, back into the 1960s—I grew up in North Carolina and I became a college intern with Governor Terry Sanford, a very progressive, Kennedy-like figure in North Carolina and they assigned me to work with a fellow David Coltrane who had been a long time segregationalist and had changed his views and become very strong pro-civil rights. I worked for him for three summers traveling the state trying to keep racial peace but also trying to promote integration and jobs and educational opportunities for African Americans. I look back upon that time as one of the most satisfying in my public life.
What drew you to politics—did you always know you wanted to work in public service?
I was drawn early on to be at the scene as a participant of the big events of my generation—I’ve always wanted to have a ringside seat. Wanting to be there, wanting to make a difference if I could, wanting to be a voice, trying to help shape how things turn out. I’ve been very fortunate in life and people have been enormously kind to me along the way.
You’ve served both democratic and republican presidents—what was the greatest challenge in serving both parties and how did you manage to stay true to your own political beliefs?
It was not always easy. There were some that believed that after I’d worked for three republicans that to go to work for Bill Clinton was an act of betrayal—some thought I was Benedict Arnold. I was brought up with the belief that I inherited from the World War II generation that you can be a strong republican or you can be a strong democrat, but it’s important that you first and foremost be a strong American.
How does your experience as a public servant play into your role as a journalist?
There used to be a barrier between public service and journalism or working in government and journalism and that barrier has come down. I don’t consider myself a journalist so much as I am a commentator. I do have biases and I’m not there to just report the news—I’m trying to interpret and understand the flow of events.
What do you see as the future of journalism—do you see a place for print in the coming years?
I’m optimistic about the place of print—just as people felt that when television came along movies would disappear and that has not been the case. I think print is always going to have a place in our minds and I’m old fashioned enough to believe it—I much prefer holding a newspaper to reading news online. But there’s no question that the business model for newspapers is a mess. They may have a model of how they try to make money but they don’t make money. And I think that’s a shame. I think we will rue the day that some of our major city newspapers disappear.
From your experience, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing the Obama administration today?
Their first and foremost challenge is to help propel us out of this economic crisis. The bigger question is now becoming what the recovery will look like and whether it’s going to be a rapid recovery like the Obama administration originally forecast or whether it’s going to be a slower and often painful recovery and it’s looking more likely that the second will be the case. He has taken on other challenges— by the end of the year (Obama) hopes to have a healthcare bill dramatically reforming healthcare and also have an energy climate change bill at least down in the House of Representatives. Those are huge undertakings and if he can get all that done he will be remembered as a President that made big accomplishments—now whether they work or not we’re going to have to wait and see.
How do you see U.S.-Israel policy options going forward with the Obama administration?
I think there’ll likely be some difficult conversations between the new administration and the Netanyahu government. They’re not on the same page on some issues. The Obama-Biden administration is clearly committed to Israel but they’ve already signaled that they have some differences on settlements and their pushing hard to have (Netanyahu) recognized or embrace the idea of a two state solution.
What role, if any, do you think an American President should play in that process?
I think the American President should remain engaged, I think it’s a mistake to pull back. He needs to be fully engaged and I’m pleased the Obama administration is doing that. I think it’s going to be very important what role Hamas and Hezbollah play here in the coming months. There is the danger that you could see Hamas increase power in the West Bank and there’s the danger that Hezbollah will increase its power in Lebanon and that would make many Israelis who are also facing the existential threat of a nuclear Iran, extremely nervous and make life more difficult for them. These are serious times.
You were interviewed in the Jewish Daily Forward about your daughter’s conversion to Judaism in 2003—How did you first react to this? How do you feel about your daughter’s conversion now?
We’re very proud of her conversion and the way that she and her husband are building a family. I must say when she first started going down this path I was ambivalent about it. We’d always raised her to make her own choices and she was headed on a spiritual journey of her own that I admired. It had nothing to do with the quality of Judaism but having some concern that she would essentially leave our family and join something else, and I wasn’t quite sure what it would be. I was worried that there might be some invisible curtain that would come between us. That has not occurred and I give a lot of credit to her husband, Mark Barnett, who is an extraordinary individual. He invited us into the process of her conversion and made us feel very welcome. Now we look forward to Shabbats and we celebrate Shabbat with them on many occasions. We’re not only becoming accustomed to it, we’re really just reveling in what she’s found in Judaism and what her children are finding. And I should add that Mark Barnett’s parents live in Chicago. Steve and Teri have become dear friends. The whole relationship has been a wonderful, positive experience and I’m very proud of our daughter.