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Gergen: election turns on security issue

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

'Watch out' for Hillary in 2008

Terrorism was the inevitable topic as David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents, spoke with a panel of students and delivered the Siebens American Heritage Lecture at Buena Vista University Saturday - three years to the day from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Gergen reminded the audience that more were killed in those fateful events than in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"We all thought your generation would be spared," Gergen said. Then, last week, America counted its 1,000th soldier to fall in the war in Iraq. "Your generation is not going to be spared either," Gergen said.

The White House inside, author and commentator said that the issues of national security are helping the Bush presidential campaign.

John Kerry started strong but his campaign has withered under Republican attacks on Kerry's military background, specifically with the Swift Boat controversy, he said.

"This is the fellow who put his life on the line in Vietnam," Gergen said of Kerry. "He volunteered to go to Vietnam. And when he volunteered for Vietnam he went on the Swift boats."

Gergen drew a strong contrast between Kerry and President Bush.

"When he signed up to protect the great state of Texas from the great state of Oklahoma, it wasn't the same thing."

As far as popularity ratings, Gergen has seen a strong shift between the two Presidential candidates.

"It's reversed," Gergen said. "The President is far better at dishing it out and taking it than John Kerry. He's a pretty darned good campaigner. And now he's got Kerry on the defense over Iraq."

Gergen said the Republicans "ran a better convention" than the Democrats and that Kerry is "still wandering around without a message."

Gergen, whose opinion on politics is probably respected by just about every expert inside the Beltway, predicts a tight vote.

"This could be a very close election," Gergen said. "Unless he (Kerry) learns how to dish it out he will lose by five to seven points."

Meanwhile, many important issues are not being fully addressed.

"We're spending almost no time talking about the hard decisions that have to be made in the future," Gergen said. "We don't have an energy policy."

"No one's figured out how we're going to handle the retirement of the Baby Boom generation," Gergen added. "All of us hope that our President is an effective leader in his second term."

Gergen, who was adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, offered an unbiased view of the effectiveness of the administrations for which he served and of the upcoming Presidential election. Gergen first fielded questions from a panel of Buena Vista students at Schaller Chapel then addressed a few questions from journalists during a press conference at Siebens Forum.

As current editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report, Gergen said that there is "a certain amount of skepticism out there when you speak," as a journalist.

Yet as a journalist, he couldn't resist asking a question of his own, a question he repeated at each event at BVU:

"Iowa is a pivotal state this year in this election. How Iowa goes is how the country goes, probably." Gergen then asked for a show of hands as to how the audience believed the election would go and how the audience planned to vote personally. In every poll, more audience members believed President Bush stood a better chance at reelection, but a lesser percent planned to vote for him personally. In any case, it appeared that the President would receive at least 60 percent of the vote among college students and 70 percent among others.

Students question Gergen

Elizabeth Kennedy of Storm Lake, the first of six BVU student panelists to interview Gergen, asked how the various Presidents for whom he worked were alike.

"They are all patriots," Gergen said. "They deeply care about the fate of the country. They're also ambitious."

Karissa Stotts of Des Moines asked Gergen why he had not run for office. Gergen said he had disqualified himself from public office as a personal option since he had worked for Presidents of both the Republican and the Democratic parties. "You can serve the common good from many places," he said.

Gergen encouraged students to have patience in their own career paths.

"Don't think that you've got to get to the top right away," Gergen said. "Do really well at whatever your lot in life is. The critical thing is to learn how to serve the common good."

Ben Bobier of Sioux City asked Gergen what the most difficult question was facing the current generation of college students just now entering the work force. Gergen said he hoped they would do a better job than the Baby Boom generation did.

"The Second World War generation actually did better than this one (Baby Boomers) did," Gergen said. "We're the most powerful nation since the nation of Rome... but it may not last."

Gergen said America needs to be more vigilant in defending its way of life.

"No country owed more to the Roman experience than our own," Gergen said. "What we do as Americans over the next 30 to 40 years is going to shape world history for the next 2,000 years. That, to me, is a really big deal. That, to me, is the big challenge facing your generation. We're the trustees for tomorrow's future."

Scott Palmer of Lake Park asked Gergen for a single example of great decision making. Gergen's example was President John F. Kennedy.

"The President who showed the most growth on the job was John F. Kennedy," Gergen said. He contrasted Kennedy's buying into former President Eisenhower's strategy for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, something he called "a series of stupid, hopeless decisions," with how Kennedy handled the Cuban missile crisis.

After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy met with Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev, a meeting in which, according to James Reston of the New York Times, Kennedy came away believing he "needed to show muscle" and in order to do so, Kennedy embroiled the United States in Vietnam.

It was the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962, though, that showed Kennedy's greatest leadership. Despite the tips of advisors to have an air strike against Russian missiles already on Cuban soil and tipped with nuclear weapons, Kennedy wanted to take a wait-and-see approach.

That was "the toughest decision any President has had to make in the last 40 years," Gergen said. Kennedy said, "let's keep thinking" and decided on the Cuban blockade.

Gergen soberly remembered the crisis. "It looked like the world might blow up."

Had American followed through with its plans for an air strike, Gergen said, "the United States would have been hit with nuclear weapons. We came very close, considerably close, to nuclear war."

Darren Whitfield of St. Louis, Mo., asked Gergen to play a game of free association in which Whitfield offered familiar names and asked Gergen to react. The results were:

* George W. Bush: "Steely but sometimes unwise."

* John Kerry: "Inconsistent but sometimes wise."

* Hillary Clinton: "Watch out."

* Monica Lewinsky: "Glad I never met her."

Elizabeth Kennedy, BVU student from Storm Lake, asked Gergen who was the most feared reporter that he had encountered.

"Individual reporters have lost some of their authority," Gergen said. He offered Walter Cronkite as the examplar of authority in news. "He had concluded that the war (Vietnam) was unwinnable."

Other examples of influential reporters Gergen observed included Bob Woodward who helped uncover Watergate, and last year's BVU lecturer.

Stotts asked Gergen whether he thought a African-American, Latin, or woman would be the first to be President.

Gergen said he believed a woman would be the first of those three categories. "Everybody knows the time has come," Gergen said. "It's conceivable that the woman could be Black or Latino."

Gergen offered former First Lady and current New York Senator Hillary Clinton as a definite possibility. If John Kerry loses, "She's going to be the front runner for 2008," Gergen said.

Curiously enough, President Clinton's recent bypass surgery could improve his wife's chances for the Presidency, Gergen said. "Does his quadruple heart bypass surgery change all of that? I think it might make her a much more attractive candidate," Gergen said. "People with quadruple heart bypasses lead quiet lives."

He said whites need to "move over and make some room at the table," and that a minority president will improve general quality of life.

As for women candidates, when women have children "their professional future is diminished," Gergen said, noting that only three women were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. He cited figures showing that 13 to 14 percent of national office holders were women while throughout Europe that figure ranged from 22 to 50 percent. America, in fact, is 40th in the world in its representation of women in politics.

Gergen noted that when a board is comprised of at least 20 percent women "the conversation begins to change. These organizations just begin to run better," Gergen said.

In responding to another question from Kennedy regarding leadership, Gergen said he no longer believed an adage held by his father that "the smartest person makes the best leader." Gergen qualified that, saying, "I don't believe that anymore. The best leader is the person that is most balanced."

Gergen called Nixon and Clinton "two of the smartest persons we've ever had in the Presidency." While Nixon was visionary, Gergen said he had personal demons. "He created a lot of enemies where he didn't need them," Gergen said.

Clinton was "a superb tactician," Gergen said. "He was the best person I've ever met on public policy. He was extremely good at economic policy. He was very good at social policy. He had the most subtle mind on public policy issues."

However, "Bill Clinton had a hard time controlling the cracks in his character," Gergen said.

Gergen views the current President Bush as being very centered, though "He did have a walk on the wild side when he was younger, some would say an extended tour," Gergen said. However, President Bush has held fast to family, faith, and friends, which have all helped shape his character, Gergen said.

"They have served his character extremely well," Gergen said. "I question whether he carries some of the other qualities to the job. What worries me is whether he's curious enough."

Gergen questioned the manner in which President Bush decided to go into Iraq.

"They spend all their time deciding what we should do about how to win it rather than if we ought to go in," Gergen said. Regardless of who is President, the next question is "what do we do now that we own it" in dealing with Iraq.

In the press conference the followed the panel, Gergen agreed that the election could turn on the Sept. 11 issue. He said it was striking that the Republicans had changed the conversation toward the threat of terrorism.

"That so far has proved to be the threat of a campaign effort," Gergen said.

Gergen agreed with Secretary of State Colin Powell's early assessment of the war in Iraq that it was not the same as the Vietnam Conflict.

"I don't think Iraq is Vietnam," Gergen said. He said the Iraqis will assume more responsibility as it is handed to them by occupying forces.

"This is not a quagmire in the sense that Vietnam was," Gergen said. "The administration made some mistakes going in. There are going to be some lessons by this. Are we going to use this to be gunshy regarding Iran and North Korea? I'm among those that believe we need to prevail in Iraq." Gergen said the U.S. needs to stabilize that country before it leaves.

The best thing the Bush administration can do to stabilize Iraq is to give youth there hope, Gergen said.

"Young people, 18, 19, 20 years old are ticking time bombs," Gergen said. "It's important to realize that we can't change them at the point of a gun."

At the lecture, before 400 specially invited guests, observed that the third anniversary of September 11, 2001 fit the theme of freedom, the cornerstone of the American Heritage Lecture series.

"It was our freedom that was attacked and it is our freedom that we must defend in years to come," Gergen said.

It is that vigilance of the defense of freedom, in fact, that "is part of who we must be," Gergen said.

Gergen noted liberty was at the center of the Declaration of Independence, saying, "We forget how perilous those times were. No one thought that we could win the Revolutionary War."

"Again and again the American story has been the struggle for freedom," Gergen said. He recalled President Roosevelt's four freedoms, of expression, religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, as another centerpiece of American freedoms.

And then there was the Cold War in which America was "protecting and defending the free world," Gergen said.

"Freedom has been in the forefront in struggle after struggle," Gergen said.

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