David Gergen is gulping, grabbing the podium in the White House press room, eyes wide in anticipation of the next trap to be laid. There are plenty.
It's 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, just hours after CIA deputy director Max Hugel resigned following accusations of improper stock market practices. This is a problem for the administration, and particularly for the man who hired Hugel. CIA Director William J. Casey. As far as the press goes, Casey is undercover for the day.
So Gergen, barely a month into his new job as White House spokesman, is presiding at the first acute embarrassment of the Reagan administration. On a sluggish summer day, it's the biggest news in town.
The reporters want more.
Q: "Did the president ask him to resign?"
Q: "What is the president's view of Bill Casey's judgment in the Hugel matter?"
Q: "Is there any concern that the agency was compromised?"
Q: "Would he have been fired if he didn't resign?"
Gergen fences back, giving some but never too much. He wrinkles his brow, hitches up his trousers, intently chews the ice in his glass of tea. He's a chronic twitcher. Sometimes he stares off into the distance, soberly pondering a question.
Q: "Do you wish the administration, or Mr. Casey, had known of these allegations earlier?"
Gergen: "Well, I suppose in some ways we all wish the whole thing could have come up in a way which could have been dealt with in ahh, ahh, in ahh . . . in a way which provided him what he wanted, which was a chance to, to, well, ahh . . . I wouldn't say that." He has caught himself in time. He smiles, the victor. And then adds: "Let's not wander down that path."
Reporters laugh. Gergen grins, intensity gone for just half a beat. You can see that he likes it, this daily cat-and-mouse game. He's a White House veteran who's now on the A team -- Ronald Reagan's new communications chief and packager of ideas.
Here's how he packages himself:
"There's are two or three angles you could play," he has said earlier, earnestly and helpfully. "The story that I would suggest is that this is the kind of person who has been there before. Why would anybody possibly want to do this a second time? That's a good question."
He has others. "You know, is this guy really a White House junkie? That kind of thing. You know, what's going on here? Is he crazy."
In a White House dominated by cool Califorians, David Gergen sticks out like a cowlick on a smooth head of hair. He is taller than the rest of them anyway, standing a gawky 6 feet 5 inches in the sensible gray suits he is adept at wrinkling. He attracts clutter, particularly the 10 newspapers he tries to get through each day. His wife won't let them pile up at home and his secretary won't let them pile up at the office, so he makes do with his ailing Volkswagen. The front seat, stacked frighteningly high, is unfit for human trasnport.
At 39, Gergen is a three-time White House aide-de-camp from the Nixon and Ford Presidencies, a fidgety, personable workaholic who has a reputation around political Washington as a decent sort who doesn't crush toes. He has a loud laugh, "AH HAH HAH," and a studied naivete, both fronts for his political sophistication. "I'm just a country lawyer," he grins. "What do you mean?"
Gergen is White House press secretary in all but title. He guides the White House press office as well as the communications and speechwriting operations -- duties he'd unofficially assumed after White House Press Secretary James S. Brady was wounded in the March 30 assassination attempt on the president. Although he's disorganized and forever late ("Some people are that way," sighs White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III), the phrase most often attached to Gergen these days is "rising star."
It was Gergen who suggested that Reagan's first public appearance after the assassination attempt be at a dramatic joint session of Congress. It was Gergen who rapidly rewrote the beginning of Reagan's June 25 victory speech in Los Angeles, the administration's first public reaction to the surprise House vote on budget cuts. And it was Gergen who told the president to end his 1980 debate against Jimmy Carter with Reagan's own clinching slogan: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
"To say that I rely on him is an understatement," says Baker. "He's the best conceptualizer, in terms of communications strategy, that we have."
He is also a former southern Democrat and civil-rights activist who supports Reagan's economic plan, but also supports, much more quietly, the Equal Rights Amendment and "personal choice" in the abortion debate. He is hardly a favorite of hard-line party conservatives.
"He's probably not a Reaganite," says Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail expert who is openly critical of many moderate White House advisers. "It's going to hurt the Reagan administration. Over time, people like Dave are going to pull the administration away from Reagan's agenda."
The administration's hierarchy publicly shrugs this off. "Dave's not in the business of making policy or trying to impose his own personal views," says Baker, a former Democrat himself.
Gergen has created a large niche for himself at the Reagan White House, making himself necessary for the smoothing of daily chaos. Sometimes, though, he adds to the chaos himself. At a recent press briefing on the shipment of F16 fighter planes to Israel, Gergen's performance fell slightly short of disastrous. "When you're up there on that podium," Gergen sighs, "you're up in front of half of the goddamn world."
Still, Gergen is well-liked by reporters. As for his job evaluation, the line from the White House press corps is that it's much too soon.
"It's hard to tell, really," says Helen Thomas of United Press International. "He seems to keep his cool, and he's privy to the inside."
"He's good at giving whatever the administration argument is," says another White House reporter, "but he's not necessarily informative."
Gergen was a reporter himself in several incarnations. An early stop was as managing editor at the Yale Daily News where, like all first-year staffers, he was initiated in a drunken ritual that required him to stand on a chair, place both hands on the ceiling, then tell the filthiest joke he knew. Gergen's was 20 minutes long and so disgusting that he was asked to repeat it at initiations for the next three years.
"Gross by any standards," laughs a friend who remembers it well.
Some say Gergen, as an alum of the Ford and Nixon presidencies, is really the "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame. He laughs this off, and seems to enjoy the speculation. But Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, who fought endless leaks to the press as Nixon's chief of staff, suspect Gergen of leaking damaging information about him this time around. Gergen denies this.
But he does like reporters. "To me, it'd be awfully stultifying to sit in there and just talk to the people who work in the building," he says. "I'd go crazy. I've been there before. I know you can get closed off." Leaks and Legend
Monday, July 29, 1974.
"David Gergen had just settled behind his desk in his corner office in the EOB when the phone rang. 'The general wants to see you,' Haig's secretary said crisply . . .
"As he entered the general's green office, Gergen saw that Haig was angry. The chief of staff was standing alone by his big table, drumming his fingers on a copy of Sunday's Washington Post, and he did not look up . . .
"[A front-page Post article] pictured a presidential staff in disarray and a president who was removed from reality and from the momentum of impeachment. Nixon's aides, the story reported, were acknowledging privately that they had failed to develop a strategy to prevent the president's removal . . .
"Haig didn't accuse Gergen directly, though he knew that [White House press secretary Ron] Ziegler thought Gergen was a chronic leaker. He wanted to know if there were any 'weak sisters' on Gergen's speechwriting staff who should be gotten rid of . . .
"'I'm probably the weakest of all,' Gergen replied. Weeks, months, almost two years of frustration now showed. Yes, he talked to reporters . . . ahe felt foolish trying to keep up an optimistic facade . . .
"'What do you think about me?' Haig shot back. He was the one out on the front line, sticking his neck out. His own doubts ran deep, very deep.
"'He's guilty as hell,' Haig said.
"Gergen was startled. Haig was the ultimate loyalist." -- from "The Final Days" by Carl Berstein and Bob Woodward
"I was young," Gergen says of Watergate, "and I was too naive. It hardened me up a lot. It was an extremely difficult experience emotionally, in terms of belief in people.
"I was terribly distressed and dismayed. I'm not sure I want to go on public record with all my feelings about it, but I felt, certainly, that I'd been misled about people we had tried very hard to help defend. There was a sense of betrayal . . ."
"I will never forget the day that Alex Butterfield [former deputy assistant to Nixon] testified about the existence of the tapes. Coming in that morning, there was a great sense of excitement around the White House, and I didn't know why. That afternoon, I was called down to someone's office to watch his testimony. For reasons I didn't understand at the time, they had drinks out there and they were sitting and watching this thing, this spectacle.
"There were two groups that emerged down in that room. One group, to which I belonged, thought this was our salvation, that the tapes would prove his innocence. And there was another group of people who thought it was all over. They were the realists."
The speech-writing staff was never accused of involvement in Watergate, although Gergen laughs: "That may be because we didn't know anything, we were so far out of it.
"It was like going throug the Marines," he says. "It really was." Hard Work and Froth
These days it's more like the officers' club, Gergen no longedr haunts the far reaches of the EOB, instead inhabiting a comfortable office strategically located among the West Wing chieftains. Deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver is just across the small reception area. Chief of Staff James Baker is on the other side, right next door.
Gergen's office is light and airy, filled with the elegant, understated furniture that comes with the White House. On a messy bookshelf there's a picture of his wife, Anne, and two children. Displayed prominently on the wall is a picture of Haig. It's dated September 1974 and inscribed: "To Dave Gergen -- With deep respect, gratitude and friendship for his superb and selfless service to nation and president."
On two others walls are separate pieces of modern art, borrowed by Gergen, under a White House program, from the Hirshhorn Museum. Gergen's secretary, Debby Rundell, looks at one painting over his desk. It is extremely modern. "His children did it," she says in a well-delivered deadpan, exiting from his office and closing the door behind her.
"These are great pieces of national art!" Gergen protests, amused but ruffled by his young secretary. "These are national treasures!" He points to a painting by Ferrom over his couch. "I happen to like that painting right there. It makes me feel very cheerful. I look at that a lot."
On this particular day, and almost at this very hour, there is a crucial vote on the Hill over Reagan's proposed budget cuts. The phone buttons are constantly lit.Gergen is jumpy. He takes a call.
"Ben. How are we on this? Okay. Can you get it over here, if you could? That'd be great. About the vote? Are you serious? Well, he's probably not close enough to it. Yeah, okay, great, thank you." He hangs up.
"It's not just tense," he says of his new job, "it's chaotic. It's always on deadline. You're frequently crashing, and having to worry about the next five minutes. One of the differences between this job and what I was doing before is that you got a chance to look at the big picture of things . . .
Reagan told Gergen on June 16 that he was naming him communications chief, a promotion that made Larry Speakes the principal in the press office and Gergen the media man -- overseeing Speakes. It also leaves the press secretary job open for James Brady, still recuperating from brain surgery at George Washington University Medical Center.
Before the assassination attempt that wounded Brady, Gergen had been staff director under James Baker, a job created in the Carter White House to offset the disorganization of Hamilton Jordan. But Baker is a good administrator, and Gergen found himself with an amorphous role. He evolved into one high-access adviser who had the time and inclination to return reporters' phone calls.
After the assassination attempt, an administration source says, the White House considered naming a new press secretary. The possibilities included deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver, Speakes, political director Lyn Nofziger and Gergen. The announcement was delayed until Brady was out of danger, and by then, it had been refined to the current setup.
Gergen likes it. "When you're at the center of action," he says, "you see people at their best and worst. You see people striving at the outermost limits of their capabilities."
Yesterday's press briefing, for instance. The Hugel matter again.
Q: "Was there an FBI security check on him?"
Gergen: "There was not an FBI security check. My understanding is that there was a background check on him, conducted by the CIA, which was extensive."
Gergen grins broadly, playing the irony for its humor. Reporters laugh. He's won again.
But Gergen remembers another time in 1973, years after the urban riots of the late 1960s. In a speech he wrote for Nixon, Gergen inserted the phrase, "the crisis of the cities is over." Mayors, newspapers and cartoonists immediately pounced on Nixon. "It was the biggest mistake I ever made," Gergen says.
But he keeps coming back. "I think you have to be silly not to enjoy the froth or the rough-and-tumble of all this," he says, "but I do enjoy the froth probably more than I should . . ."
"I've got a lot to learn," Gergen says. "I've got to learn the rhythm of the briefings, and how much of the information is really useful. And I've got to have a better grasp of foreign-policy issues. You have to be very careful with what you say, and it's often very difficult to convey the nuances of policy that you can discuss one-on-one." The Paper Route
Gergen is from Durhan, N.C., the son of a math department chairman at Duke University. From the age of 14, Gergen worked at his local newspaper; in college, was managing editor of the Yale Daily News. "He always said he wanted to be editor of The Washington Post of The New York Times," recalls Joseph Alpert, his college roommate for four years.
Gergen's wait-until-the-last-minute habits flourished in his college days, particularly during one political science course. The class was assigned to do a four- to six-page paper describing the political characteristics of their home-town congressional districts, due in one week. Gergen turned the paper in 12 weeks later, by which time it had grown to 90 pages. He got an A.
At Yale, Gergen was also on the debate team for his residential college. One debate with Mr. Holyoke, in part cooked up by him, posed the question: Should a woman choose death before dishonor? Gergen's side argued for dishonor. They won.
In the summers, he worked for a civil-rights citizens' group led by David Coltrane, a top aide to then-North Carolina governor Terry Sanford. dGergen was drawn into the southern civil-rights movement by Allard Lowenstein, the late liberal activist who had organized meetings at Yale, "I went to some . . . meetings because I'd come from the South," says Gergen, "and just inevitably, coming from those roots, you're concerned about racial problems."
Gergen recalls how, about the time three civil-rights workers were killed in Mississippi in 1964, he traveled through North Carolina with Coltrane's group. Their job was to set up integrated community councils and counteract the Ku Klux Klan.
Gergen remembers attending a Klan rally that summer."I had never been to one," he says, "and I wanted to know and understand the Klan movement and what it was all about. If you saw them, you began to realize that these were people whom life had left behind, they were people who had failed and were frustrated, and a lot of their racial hatred derived from other sources."
After the rally, the Klan surrounded Gergen's group and followed them to the car, yelling and spitting. "They started rocking the car," Gergen says, "and I told the guy who was driving, 'Turn on the motor and drive .' We were chased, but we got out ot it. It was about as scared as I've been in a racial situation."
Question: How does he reconcile working for southern civil rights and supporting Ronald Reagan's proposed budget cuts?
"I am one of those who was very disillusioned with all the promises and programs of the '60s," he says. "I believe very strongly that we need to keep a social safety net underneath people, and I'm concerned about the way some of these budget cuts are going to be administered, [but] I think we've included a lot of people in the benefits now who I truly don't think need them . . .
"I don't accept the philosophy that the best way to help the poor is to give them a handout. I just don't believe that. When I was working with the civil-rights movement, it had very much to do with the whole idea of opening up opportunities. I really believe that the best way to encourage people to make it is to have them make it on their own."
After Yale came Harvard Law School, then three years in the Navy. At the end of this service in late 1970, Gergen needed a job. The oldboy network helped. His close friend Jonathan Rose, the former chairman of the Yale Daily News, was working at the Nixon White House. Rose's father was Chapman Rose, the president's tax lawyer. Nixon speechwriter Raymond Price hired Gergen on Jonathan Rose's recommendation.
"A very ordered, disciplined kind of a thinker," says Price of Gergen. "A very impressive mind."
"I told him," Gergen recalls of his interview with Price, "'Look, I'm a registered Democrat, and I didn't vote for Nixon in '68, I voted for Humphrey.' But I very much adminred Nixon's foreign policy. I never thought for a moment he would call me back. I was really surprised THEY'D HIRE A Democrat."
"It's difficult to resist an inviation like that," says a college friend. "Why not? I've always been under the impression that he doesn't believe all the stuff that these fellows put out. He just fell into it 10 years ago." a
Anne Gergen's politics are decidedly more liberal than her husband's. "I have to say, she finds some of this distasteful," says Gergen, looking increasingly uncomfortable. "And she disagres with some aspects of policies here. She's concerned, I think, with the fact that I'm going to have a high profile, and somehow am going to get chopped up in the process. She and I do disagree on some issues. In '72, she was for McGovern."
Back then, Gergen was already well on his way in Republican circles. Fired by Gerald Ford after Nixon's resignation, Gergen landed as a speech-writer for the former Treasury secretary William E. Simon and soon returned to the Ford White House -- at their request -- to run the communications office.After that, he edited the magazine Public Opinion, published by the American Enterprise Institute, a leading conservative think tank. Action Addict
Gergen explains the rush of the White House:
"I guess I am very much drawn to action," he says. "You know, the excitement. It's part of the reporter instinct. You want to see it, you want to experience it, you want to be part of it. It think that's part of the fascination of being in Washington . . .
"You get very interested and caught up early on, I think, with how the thing works, who does what to whom, how the interesting little pieces fit toegther. And after you've been here for a while, you begin to see the rhythms. It's less interesting to see the day-to-day, because you know that, you understand that. But you see how tides change . . .
"There are a lot of thrills in this city, but the heart of what is going on is serious. Underneath all this there is a flow. It think it's terribly important that the institution of the presidents who have left office in tragedy or disappointment."
He recalls a recent high, standing in the balcony at thejoint session of Congress:
"When the president went up to the Hill to speak, after he was shot, I was just elated. My emotions move easily, and I was enthralled by that occasion. I did have shivers when he spoke. It was one of the most moveing moments I'd seen."