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Gergen: America works better when we work together

Political analyst David Gergen talks about the 2012 election at Calvin College's January Series.
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As a close advisor to four presidents, David Gergen knows a few things about politics. He also knows how to make an audience laugh. Gergen began his hour-long talk at Calvin College’s January Series on Wednesday with a joke about an older man who finds a talking frog. The frog tells the man he’ll turn into a beautiful princess with a kiss, but the man replies that at his age, he’d rather have a talking frog.

Gergen became a staff assistant on the Nixon White House speech writing team in 1971. Within two years, he took over as director. After that, he worked as the Director of Communications for Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and later as a counselor on domestic and foreign affairs for Bill Clinton.

“I started my political career with Watergate and ended it with Whitewater,” Gergen jokes.

These days, he appears regularly on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 and the Situation Room as a senior political analyst. Gergen’s calm bipartisan voice often stands among spirited partisan discussions.

Gergen also serves as editor-at-large at U.S. News & World Report and as a professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and co-director of the school’s Center for Public Leadership.

With more than 40 years experience in politics, Gergen has many concerns with today’s negative political climate. He believes we need to find a way to come back together or, as he puts it, we need “less pluribus, more unum.” He thinks America has lost too much faith in government, Wall Street and major corporations and the political divisiveness is creating   tension and pessimism. Our country faces more danger of decline because of what we’re not accomplishing now, he says.  

“America works better when we work together,” says Gergen.

He doesn’t care so much who wins the next election, but stresses the importance of having a leader who can govern well. President Obama represents a good leader, in his opinion, and he wants him to succeed. The audience clapped loudly when Gergen said he disagreed with Rush Limbaugh’s desire to see Obama fail, showing disbelief as to why anyone would want to see their leader fail.

The 2012 presidential election will be close, but Gergen predicts a slight tilt toward Obama. He estimates Mitt Romney will win the Republican nomination, but he hasn’t discounted Newt Gingrich just yet.

Impressed with Obama as a great campaigner, he believes minorities, women and younger Americans will overwhelmingly vote for him as they did in 2008, though the campaign will not be nearly as strong. Gergen recalls that last time, people raised Obama so high that anything he did would be a letdown.

“He can’t walk on water,” Gergen says.

Obama recently invited six people to visit the White House and discuss their views about the direction of the country. Gergen, chosen to attend, was relieved to discover that the president hasn’t lost touch with reality as some presidents do and “he’s not in a bubble.”

He thinks Obama is not only very articulate, but also has one of the best minds. Gergen advised him to expand his inner circle to include more policy people and those with disparate backgrounds.

“Diversity of opinions made Reagan a better president,” he shared.

Gergen also suggested more involvement with the business community and to be more in front of congress, not leading them from behind. He commended Obama for his foreign relations policies and stressed the importance of having a president who was level headed, especially with the complex relationship we have with Iran right now.

After the meeting at the White House, Gergen confessed that he didn’t think Obama listened to him- but that maybe this just proves how smart he is.

Regarding Romney, Gergen met with Mitt and Ann, his wife, last spring for a piece in Parade magazine. He laughed and then said, “I came away really impressed with Ann.”

Ann Romney reminds him of Betty Ford: she’s warm, attractive and a good family person. Earlier in his talk, Gergen shared what it was like to work with Jerry and Betty Ford and it was obvious he deeply respected the couple.

He believes Romney’s Mormon faith and his work with Bain Capital are non-issues, but the secrecy surrounding his taxes could be an issue. However, if Romney earned a lot but also tithed a substantial amount, then Gergen thinks that may work in his favor.  

“The election is still 10 months away,” Gergen said, laughing and rolling his eyes.

A lot can happen in the Republican race and with our economy in that time. He hopes the presidential campaign does not become too bitter or divide our country even further. He advises it’s hard to be a good leader when you’ve demonized the other party during the campaign. Going forward, Gergen wants see both sides compromise and meet each other halfway.

He ended his talk with an expression summarizing what he’s learned in his successful four-decade political career:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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