Big Dave-Gergen; REAGAN'S UNFLAPPABLE MEDIA MAN
Washington — It is a sizzler of a summer day, with the TV cameras on the green silk of the White House lawn baking under a 98-degree sun. Inside, in the White House press office, David R. Gergen, the new communications chief, is cramming for one of his first briefings, facing the lions of the press. Outside, ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson roars at a Secret Service man who has gotten in the way of an interview:
"Arrest him if you're going to arrest me!" shouts Donaldson, one eye cocked to see if the cameras are getting it. "Arrest him, too!" he says of the man he's been interviewing outside the press briefing building. for a moment there's a standoff. Then the confrontation evaporates into steam under the torrid sun. It's too hot to hassle.
Besides, the daily White House briefing is about to begin inside the long, low white building just behind them. And no reporter worth his tape recorder wants to miss that. To be there and miss the high-noon ritual of the daily briefing is to be in Pamplona during the running of the bulls and never leave your hotel room.
The buzz of anticipation rises as the reporters crowd into the briefing room, the former White House swimming pool which the Nixon administration paved over for the press. In the darkest moments of press corps-White House confrontation over the last decade, it has been suggested (by the comic strip (Doonesbury," among others) that the pool might be refilled during a press briefing.
The briefings are historically adversary situations: the administration spokesman as matador, parrying, thrusting, swirling his cape to avoid the thundering herd of questioners, or sometimes, as the resident lion tamer, chair and whip at the ready.
On milder days, like this one, the scene is more like a rowdy summer camp where counselors are battling an insurrection over the creamed chipped beef fed the campers at lunch. The feeding analogy is overall the most accurate one: reporters arrive hungry for news, which is fed them in the form of sheaves of mimeographed announcements and whatever answers to their questions the White House tosses out.
The word has gone out that this is a big news day, and the room is SRO, jammed with TV cameras at the back, regular White House press corp members sitting in the beat-up chairs that have their paper's or station's name scrawled on paper and taped on the back, visiting reporters standing three-deep or hunkered down on the step below the podium.
The room itself, which the administration is threatening to redecorate soon, has the ambiance of a locker room. The dust-colored rug is a shambles from the ground-in-residue of years of heavy camera equipment, flashbulbs, and various foodstuffs. The room is a study in brown with its tan wallpaper, cocoa paint, spent tan leather couches. The only notes of color are the Reagan photos on the wall and the perennial blue velvet curtain that acts as a backdrop for all briefings. Old newspapers lie crumpled in corners, and the sound is turned down on the TV sets where camera crews watch soap operas during slow moments.
In the middle of all the buzz and banter the White House spokesman, big Dave Gergen, looms in the press room door off to the left. He strides softly in, takes his place in front of the blue velvet curtain, and begins his one-man newsreel. Gergen, who tops off at 6 feet, 5 inches, is so tall that he towers over the podium like an adult dancing with a child.* With Gergen, there's no problem with visibility as there was with one previous, shorter press secretary, whose appointment was announced just before the late Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News yelled, "Hold him up so we can see him!"
Partly because of his height and partly because of his quiet, firm, and unflappable presence, Gergen has taken easy command of the podium. The briefing this day begins with an interminable list of ambassadorial appointments to obscure countries. There is a chorus of exaggerated yawns and loud stage snores from the press, followed by a few jokes. Gergen smiles politely but moves briskly on, not encouraging any of it, but not riled by it, either. Nor does he try any fast repartee of his own.
He keeps his cool through the rest of a harrowing briefing session, much of it focused on controversy over Judge Sandra O'Connor's position on abortion as a Supreme Court nominee. After the initial banter, most of the press corps settles down to serious and informed questions, which they hurl like javelins at Gergen. He doesn't duck, but when he doesn't know the answer he doesn't hedge, either, promising to "take the question" to the President and his aides for a later answer.
Even with two reporters for special-interest publications who try to turn the briefing into a forum for their own philosophy, he is polite, patient. At this and subsequent briefings on subjects as diverse as Cuban refugees, the Mediterranean fruit fly, oil-exploration incentives ("sweeteners"), high interest rates, and Secretary of State Haig, he remains affable, courteous, informed, always the spokesman rather than a personality on display.
With Gergen there is none of the embattled surliness of the Nixon-era briefings with Ron Ziegler, none of the boys-on-the-bus competitiveness of Ron Nessen's briefings for Gerald Ford, none of the quick, rapier wit and insider's hints of Jody Powell's briefings for Jimmy Carter. He does not perform: He informs. Period.
And of course, he is not press secretary, as those men were. He has a special title: Assistant to the President for Communications. During this sensitive period when Press Secretary Jim Brady is recovering from gunshot wounds inflicted during the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the White House is firm about the fact that there is no one with the title of press secretary but Brady. So the official spokesman at daily briefings is either the newly appointed Dave Gergen, who is in charge of all White House communications, or the soft-spoken assistant press secretary, Larry Speakes.
Although he doesn't have the title on the door, or Jody Powell's old office with the fireplace, Gergen is press secretary of the Reagan administration in all but name. He commandeers the White House press office as well as heading up its speech-writing and communications wings. As that chief power-watcher, the Washington Post points out, he is a "rising star" in the Reagan firmament.
During the briefing this day, the only indication Gergen is under fire is the occasional sip of iced tea he takes from a glass on the small table to his right. That and the fact that at the end of the briefing tiny beads of perspiration glint on his upper lip. The next day in his White House office he grins and says, "I got pummeled so hard out there yesterday. . . ."
He is not so much rueful as amused by the toughness of the job on a day like that. This former Democrat and civil rights activist -- now a born-again Republican -- has been in the bullring before. He was a speech writer in the embattled Nixon White House during Watergate. He had the same title he has now, director of communications, under President Ford. He wrote speeches and was an informal issues adviser and one-man band for George Bush in his long quest for the presidency. Before being named communications chief in mid-June, Gergen was staff director under White House chief of staff James Baker.
For a tall man working at the top of government he has managed to keep an exceptionally low profile with the public. He rarely appears on TV, is rarely quoted by name. If you looked quickly during the Haig briefing televised at the Montebello economic summit, you could see him sitting unobtrusively over in one corner near the fieldstone fireplace with a briefing book in his lap. He was the guy with the ashblond hair who sat tall in the saddle with a look of absolute concentration on his face.
He's more relaxed in his own office, which is upstairs at the White House and down the hall from the Oval office. Gergen has slipped off his blue-gray suit jacket because his office has a rogue thermostat that keeps it uncomfortably warm. So this first of three interviews wedged into a pressure-cooker appointment schedule is conducted in shirt sleeves, blue and white striped. He is also wearing a Harvard crimson tie with a pale blue paisley design, blue-gray trousers, black shoes. With his open face and choirboy blue eyes he exudes a nice-guy, Boy Scout leader, trust-me image.
And yet, there is that book on his built-in bookshelf, "The Politics of Lying ," by David Wise, which reminds the visitor of the shadow of the past hanging over White House spokesmen. The danger of mendacity, to use a Tennessee Williams word. There is the memory of the time Pierre Salinger in the national interest assured the press that President Kennedy was feeling a bit under the weather, when in fact he was suffering from a bad Cuban missile threat. Or, not in the national interest, Ron Ziegler's stonewalling over Watergate.
Would Mr. Gergen lie if he had to, even in the national interest?
He answers in his quick, clipped, semi-Southern baritone: "Well, I'll tell you, that question often comes up. And I feel the moment you walk out there and lie to the press that you're finished. God forbid the day would come when you felt you had to do it in the national interest. I do place very high stakes on the national interest, and there might come that [moment]. But I think the next day you'd quit. Or whatever. You'd wait a decent interval and leave. I just think you're of no value to the President at that point, and you're of no value to anyone else. So I think Larry [Speakes], Jim [Brady], and I and the others that have shared that podium all feel you will not draw the line, you will not lie." He pauses. A clarification, as they say in Washington.
"Now that is not to say that as issues come up you will not take a position that tries to indicate, you know, the way the President sees it or the way the staff may see it or whatever, that inevitably emphasizes the more positive aspects of the policy. I think the press understands that. And you certainly understand that they're frequently going to ask you the hard or the difficult questions. But you have your role and they have their role and from that I think the truth can emerge. . . ."
Gergen made these remarks, during one of the interviews for this story, before a New York Times column by Howell Raines suggested Gergen had misinformed the White House press corps. The Raines "Reporter's Notebook" said Gergen's White House press office has "credibility problems" over the forced resignation of Robert Neumann as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Gergen had stated that Neumann resigned because of his wife's ill health, but other administration sources later said Secretary Haig had received permission from the President to fire Neumann because he disagreed with Haig's Saudi Arabia policies. When questioned about the discrepancy at a White House briefing, Gergen said he had put out "misleading information," criticized the State Department for it, but later said his original statement was accurate.
When Gergen was asked to respond to the Monitor on the questions raised by this incident vis-a-vis his statement, he said:
"When you knowinglym go out there and lie, that's when you have a real problem. There will always be times when you have less than the complete information because of the scramble of the day. The people who gave me the information [at the State Department], who told it to me, were interested in protecting the privacy and reputation of the people involved . . . each piece of information I got was truthful and accurate, but when you put it together . . . .
"One person told me his [Neumann's wife's] health had something to do with it , and the person who told me that believed it to be true. In fact Neumann, it turned out, felt it had nothing to do with the issue. I'm not going to disagree with Neumann on that. It was certainly not intentional or knowing on my part. At the time I thought people were intentionally misleading me, and I was angry at the people at State, but as we got [further] into it, I thought they were acting out of thinking it would affect his personal privacy, and it was technically accurate. However, I wish it had never occurred."
And sometimes in the past he's had the press's role. He has played "Front Page" himself, as managing editor and a cofounder of Public Opinion magazine during the time between presidents when he was at the American Enterprise Institute. And before that, when he was a kid in Durham, N.C., "one of those sprouting, skinny teen-agers" who shot up three or four inches between his 13th and 14th birthdays, which temporarily affected his coordination as a baseball player. So he took up journalism instead.
He started out covering sports for the Durham Morning Herald, ended up working nights for the paper covering local and state news, became editor of the high school newspaper, managing editor of the Yale Daily, and almost went into journalism.But after taking honors in history at Yale, he went on in a bipartisan way to graduate cum laudem from its rival, Harvard, with a law degree. The only problem is,he doesn't enjoy practicing law. Which is how he got into government.
During our second conversation, I begin a question about the presidential image by saying, "You're following on the heels of Jerry Rafshoon" (the Carter communications expert), but before I can finish the "-oon" in Rafshoon, Gergen jumps into protest: "I would say it's different." Then he settles back to listen to the rest of the question, about whether public opinion can be massaged into shape, and whether he is trying to create an image consciously for the President.
"Naw," he answers. "I have a very different view of that. I have felt for a long time with this President that it's not only not necessary but it is presumptuous to try to shape this person, this President, as an individual, as a man.
"Ronald Reagan is much better by himself communicating who he is and what kind of person he is than any of us could possibly make him." He quotes Ben Wattenberg, co-editor of Public Opinion, quoting someone else: "In the life of every public figure there are often what we would call naked moments, when you see that person as he or she truly is, when you see the true character. It's nothing synthetic, nothing produced by a staff. And I thought that in the moments in that hospital room [after the assasination attempt] we saw the truth of the character of Reagan. . . .
"I think a lot of Americans have come to recognize the character of this man, and they feel both admiration and affection for him as a person even though they may disagree with his policies on frequent occasions. I see our role now as much more how can we best communicate the ideas and policies of the administration, not the personal image . . . . I do think where we can productively and constructively spend time is in communicating ideas about the administration, what it stands for." As he summed it up in another part of the conversation:
"See, I believe this administration came into office with some new ideas, different ideas that had been fermenting in the conservative community and elsewhere in the country for several years and have noe taken root in the government. What we need to do is persuade people why it's better for the country to go in this direction . . . ."
People who know David Gergen well talk about his energy, his effectiveness, his appetite for hard work. Although he's no slouch intellectually, he doesn't dazzle you with his footwork. One of Gergen's mentors is Bryce Harlow, a former White House counsel, who is high on his former protege but offers some other insights, too. Harlow calls him cerebral and classy, considers Gergen, who is in his late 30s, extraordinarily perceptive "for such a young man."
He says Gergen is very sober, as well rounded as an agate marble, has a sense of humor but not much of one. "Having a sense of humor in that job is like having a sense of humor about sitting on a fire," adds Harlow, a sort of Brer Fox about politics who's seen it all.
Watching Gergen at work, briefing the press, it's clear that he doesn't polarize people; he tends to tamp them down with his own equanimity. One Gergen-watcher says that the other side of the coin is that Gergen is bland, that he doesn't have strong ideological positions, that if you met him in a crowd he's the one person you wouldn't remember having been there and taking a position.
In a way that's what his ex-boss, William Simon, former secretary of the Treasury, is talking about when he says he's glad that Gergen is finally getting the recognition he deserves at the White House for being a "real pro . . . with superb judgment, and a terribly prodigious worker."
In one of our early evening interviews Mr. Gergen sits at a table in front of a wall covered with autographed photos of political superstars and presidents for whom he's worked. In addition to the standard White House furniture there is a king-size black leather swivel chair behind the desk. In one corner, crammed bookshelves and a TV set to watch the nightly network news. No stacks of the 10 newspapers he reads daily: he squirrels them away in his battered '65 Volkswagen, since his secretary won't tolerate their pilling up in the office, nor will his wife tolerate them at home.
Gergen is talking about how he views himself: "I suppose to some extent it's fair to say I'm ambitious or driven, I'm not sure which.I think one has to be, in this town, to survive. I'm less interested in, I guess, personal power, than in having an opportunity to participate and see history in the making. I enjoy that very much. He also says that he came into government with "a certain idealism" and has retained the feeling that "certain hopes and beliefs can be accomplished. At the same time I would like to think I have some sensitivity to the careers and personal happiness of the people around me."
He is the sort of guy who did this when he first met his wife-to-be, Anne, 14 years ago: They met on a blind date when he was in law school and she, a Briton, was touring the United States on a 99-day bus ticket. She didn't have much money.So he wrote ahead to a lot of people he knew across the country asking them to put her up; they then called other friends. She never had to pay for a hotel or motel during that whole, 99-day trip. They were married just before the Navy assigned him to Japan, and now they have two children, Katherine and Christopher.
While Gergen does not have the close, father-son relationship that Jody Powell enjoyed with President Carter, he does see Ronald Reagan each morning, along with the presidential triumvirate of advisers, Jim Baker, counselor Ed Meese, deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver, legislative assistant Max Friedersdorf , and deputy press secretary Speakes. Gergen says he monitors the President's views at meetings during the day, and if something is really pressing he can talk with Reagan directly.
There is concern with avoiding the bunker mentality in the White House that characterized the Nixon administration. Gergen says the President himself tends to dissipate that: "I think one of the virtues and strengths of this presidency has been that the President is a very open person. He doesn't see the press every day, but he's very open to the idea of talking to them and doesn't feel any hostility to them. And that radiates through his staff. It makes a difference in his staff, how the top man feels about it."