Historic insider’s insights into presidential qualities.
Gergen directed communications for Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, counseled Clinton, edited U.S. News & World Report, and is a significant TV pundit who teaches government at Duke and Harvard. Despite his heavily Republican resume, he discusses the last several presidents’ strengths and weaknesses without partisanship, and, although he has some humorous anecdotes to share, he never lapses into lurid revelations. Gergen feels that none of these men was a Roosevelt or a Churchill, and he offers seven prerequisites for success in the White House. The first is possession of a character that inspires trust. Gergen admits that Nixon was paranoid and, “brow wet with perspiration, would set a television audience on edge”—whereas Reagan, the Great Communicator, oozed sincerity (and Gerald Ford’s controversial voice of honesty was Betty). Moral vision comes next, followed by canny political skills (Nixon and Clinton are rated as the most “politically savvy” presidents in 30 years, although Gergen sighs that these skills didn’t include self-mastery—so in a sense these two were their own worst enemy). Clinton is also highly rated for the ability to mobilize followers, while Reagan’s friends did not feel as well used. Nixon and Clinton had much experience with crises, but Gergen praises Ford for weathering the post-Watergate storm, and Reagan for enduring an assassination attempt and the air-traffic controllers’ strike. As far as working with staff, the Nixon-Kissinger team is lauded the most highly. The final criterion involves a legacy, and accomplishments like détente and an economic boom make us wonder what the 2000 candidates might achieve. Despite 13 pages of chapter notes, the tone is informal and breezy throughout.
Entertaining, fair-minded, and important reading for the end of an election year.