Monday, June 21, 2010

Eyewitness to Power by David Gergen

After reading through David Gergen’s Eyewitness to Power, I learned a lot about the impact of presidential powers from four recent Commanders-in-Chief: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Though our test review guides and school’s social science textbooks have taught me the basics about significant events/acts/organizations like Watergate and NAFTA, everything remained so two-dimensional and passive. Those important moments remained in the past and seemed so distanced. However, upon reading this book, I began to learn beyond the 5Ws and H.

Mr. Gergen is great at painting vivid portraits. Before, these presidents always seemed to me as great, influential, old men of the past. They appeared in mugs and still photography every couple of pages in the books. They were talked about in dry language, fact after fact after fact. On the other hand, Mr. Gergen gives life to the people he wrote about on paper. Between his pearls of wisdom and lessons about what qualities are essential for successful leaders, he tells stories about the presidents, their family, the White House staff, and the media. From those stories, I learned more about the characteristics of the Presidents that allowed me to envision them – what they looked like, how they talked, what they would wear, etc.

President Nixon possessed, what Mr. Gergen believes, great capability to lead the country. As a leader, Nixon was efficient and effective, with the help of his staff. He also had a keen foresight. Very knowledgeable of past leaders in America and abroad, Nixon looked back to learn the lessons before delegating his duties, which enabled him to set the country on a road to success in the future. Although he proved he was fully capable, Nixon often had doubts about himself and grew jealous fairly easily. This eventually led him to tap the Watergate Hotel during the reelection process. Nixon was also known to have a lousy mouth, especially in his office when he was under stress. Thus, when the tapes were released, the media took the worst parts out of context and made him look horrible in the public’s eyes. Ultimately, Nixon’s inability to balance his Ying and Yang sides led to his crumbling downfall.

After Nixon’s resignation, his Vice President, Gerald Ford, took office as President. Given the horrible situation that the country was in when Ford took over, he managed pretty well. The public was shocked about the Watergate scandal and lost faith in the Presidency. To add more fuel to the already scorching fire, the national economy plummeted during Nixon’s last days and entered into what could have been the second Great Depression. Ford’s determination and commitment to honesty eventually allowed him to end his Presidency in a good light, ending the depression and reinstalling some of the lost faith in the government system. He is considered to be one of the most underrated Presidents in modern times.

After Carter’s term, Reagan entered office as yet another Republican President. Reagan, like Ford, was a very smart man that the public undercredited. Although he was a Hollywood film star before entering politics, Reagan was a skilled politician. He was experienced from his position as the Governor of California and began developing leadership abilities from his Hollywood times. And more importantly, he came across as a genuine person. Mr. Gergen discusses that the first hundred days of any Presidency is perhaps the most important frame of time. It is when the President must establish himself as the right leader for the country – a big shoe to fill up. Reagan was well aware of this. Unlike some of his predecessors, he appointed most of the staff positions early on and came up with an economic plan before the transition period. Both of these processes were long and strenuous, but Reagan jumped on it and gained a head start so his first hundred days in office was not spent on them, but on devising plans for execution.

Although Mr. Gergen planned on retiring from government jobs after Reagan’s Presidency, he was recruited to help Clinton when he landed himself into a big messy hole after the first couple of weeks in the Oval Office. Unlike Reagan, Clinton procrastinated in filling staff positions and when he did fill them, he created a team of young, inexperienced campaign supporters, many from his home state. Because of that, Clinton was not able to act effectively and made several mistakes right off the bat. Also, Clinton did not come across as a very popular politician, even within his own party. One of the most important traits for a successful leader is popularity, amongst the public, the media, and, of course, his own cabinet.

To conclude the book, Mr. Gergen included seven lessons of leadership in a nutshell: “Leadership Starts from Within,” “A Central, Compelling Purpose,” “A Capacity to Persuade,” “An Ability to Work within the System,” “A Sure, Quick Start,” “Strong, Prudent Advisers,” and “Inspiring Others to Carry On the Mission.” Although they most directly apply to Presidency, these tips are meant to help anyone in any type of leadership position.

After reading the book, I am much more interested in reading other accounts about the Presidents to see how other politicians, historians, journalists, etc. view them and their contributions to society.

Heading to the East Coast in half a week! I’m so excited!

1 comment:

  1. Yueming:

    What a great read! I truly enjoyed reading this post and your thoughts on the book.

    I think I told you all about how interesting David Gergen was and that you would probably enjoy this book.

    Aside from advising four Presidents, David Gergen has been a great commentator during elections, debates and State of the Union addresses. He's made no bones about his Republican roots but he has never come across as partisan and backs up his comments with facts and not political pontifications.

    I think you're going to do well in this class, Yueming.