Newsman Gergen has advice for Clinton, praise for Bush

January 17, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

President-elect Bill Clinton must fulfill his campaign promises "for the country's sake," but avoid running his presidency the way he ran his transition to power, David R. Gergen, the nationally known commentator, said yesterday.

"I don't think anyone knows how effective a chief executive Bill Clinton will be," Mr. Gergen said at a seminar at St. John's College in Annapolis. "He certainly has the brains. But we don't know if he has the guts to be a leader."

Mr. Gergen called the transition "the sloppiest in memory. I'm not sure these people are ready to govern. . . . For all the promise we saw during the campaign, we are now seeing some flaws as well."

The editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report and commentator on the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour" spoke for an hour yesterday to several hundred people on "Reshaping America: Whose government is it anyway?"

He often poked fun at politicians and journalists and praised President George Bush, saying he deserves "a medal of honor" for his actions after his election defeat. Mr. Gergen said the relief effort in Somalia, the tough stance with Iraq and the pardoning of his "good friend and patriot, [former secretary of defense] Cap Weinberger," proved democracy can shift gears without using bullets.

"Four days from now, we realize a majestic goal in our republic -- a day when we peacefully transfer power," said Mr. Gergen, the former communications director for Ronald Reagan. "What distinguishes our democracy from others is balance."

But he doesn't believe all is well in the nation. He said democracy has turned "into a spectator sport" where people don't give their leaders a chance to govern. "This country will not be transformed by one man alone," he said, adding that people must get involved to reverse a pervasive mistrust that led to a dramatic decline in participation in elections.

Mr. Gergen praised Mr. Clinton's ideas for re-educating the work force and for trying to resolve turmoil among races and classes as ways to bring minority groups into the mainstream.

He also criticized society for putting too much stress on material possessions and not enough emphasis on "civic values."

But Mr. Gergen said he might be partly responsible for fostering the material age of the '80s because he helped draft the famous Reagan slogan, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" during the 1984 presidential campaign.

"Is that the right question to ask?" Mr. Gergen said, adding he probably should have asked, "Is the country better off?"

But, he said, "If I had phrased that question differently, we might have lost the election."

The country, he said, is not addressing the class issue, which with racism could tear apart the economic fabric of the nation, he said. It goes down to the public school system and the flight of whites from urban areas, he said.

Citing the controversy over Zoe Baird, Mr. Clinton's nominee for attorney general who admitted hiring two illegal aliens, he asked: "How many Americans have this kind of problem?"

He called on Mr. Clinton to broaden his programs, rhetoric and actions to include everyone.

"This was a campaign about the suburbs," Mr. Gergen said. "That's where the people were. But if we have a presidency directed only at the suburbs, that is only going to get him into trouble."

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