Washington's consummate chameleon

Jonathan Schell

June 11, 1993|By Jonathan Schell

BEHOLD David Gergen! He is all things to all men. If our age, like the ancient Greeks, believed in gods, he would have to be one. He is a Republican. He has worked for three of the last four Republican presidents: Nixon, Ford and Reagan. Yet he is a Democrat.

Now he will work for President Clinton. Yet, at the same time, he is an independent. ("I've always been a registered independent," he says.) He is a newsman ( he covers the news and comments on it). Yet he is the news (he is that which is covered). At one moment, he points the camera at those in power -- he's outside looking in -- but the next moment, the camera is pointed at him -- he's inside looking out.

Even in his outside capacity, he has two roles. He's a print man -- an editor for U.S. News & World Report -- yet he appears on the MacNeil-Lehrer show as a commentator, together with Mark Shields. In some vague way, Mr. Gergen was the "Republican," Shields the "Democrat." (The remarks one heard most often from rTC these genial controversialists were "Mark is completely right . . ." and "David is completely right . . .")

As adviser to Bill Clinton, Mr. Gergen will have multiple roles, too. As he told the New York Times, the people in the Clinton administration "said they were looking for someone who will be at the intersection of policy and politics and communication." Has Mr. Gergen, in the government or outside it, ever been anywhere else?

Will he, then, be confined to some particular area of policy, such as domestic affairs? No need to worry. In the Reagan administration, he had no role in foreign affairs, but in the Clinton administration, "They have assured me that I will be in the loop across the board on policy."

No wonder, then, that, at the ceremony announcing the appointment, the president seemed to take a back seat. In the Reuters photograph of the occasion, the president, facing the camera, smiles at Mr. Gergen and shakes his hand, while Mr. Gergen, unsmiling, and not looking at Mr. Clinton, seems to ponder the responsibilities of office. (The famously wooden presence of Vice President Al Gore adds further solemnity to the occasion.) In another photo, Mr. Gergen grasps the podium while Mr. Clinton, his face wrinkled with an appreciative smile, applauds, courtier-like, in the background. To judge by these photos -- and by the tone of the coverage of the event -- you might have thought that it was Mr. Gergen who had appointed Mr. Clinton communications director.

If Mr. Gergen seems all things to all men, perhaps that is because he, above all others, is versed in the arts making politicians appeal to the greatest number of people. In the Nixon administration, it was he who presided over the scripted Republican convention of 1972, in which even the applause and "spontaneous" demonstrations were timed to the second. In the Reagan administration, he was the author of a famous memo outlining that administration's first hundred days.

What, then, does Mr. Gergen stand for, and what does he bring to the Clinton administration? "I have been very concerned," Mr. Clinton (favorable poll rating, 36 percent) said at the announcement ceremony, "that the cumulative effect of some of the things which are now very much in the news has given to the administration a tinge which is too partisan, and not connected to the mainstream, pro-change, future-oriented politics." On all sides, it is agreed that Mr. Gergen's job will indeed be to bring the Clinton administration back into "the mainstream."

But the mainstream is not, in fact, a "position." It is a piece of demographics -- or, what is more to the point, a hunk of votes. It is good poll numbers, victory in elections. Like Mr. Gergen himself, the "mainstream" cannot be pinned down over the long run to any particular view. Mr. Gergen represents the principle of entropy in politics -- the overwhelming tendency of American politicians -- including, it's now clear, Mr. Clinton -- to tell the public whatever it wants, at a given moment, to hear.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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