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David Gergen at the Ath

February 18, 2008

by Sahil Kapur

A former official in the Nixon, Ford, Clinton and Reagan Administrations, David Gergen describes himself as an independent. Last Tuesday, February 12th at the Athenaeum, Mr. Gergen gave his view of both the Republican and Democratic candidates for President, and the direction that the country is going over the next four years. Mr. Gergen began with a talk about the presidential race and the fresh results from Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. “McCain survived a scare, and almost lost Virginia, and if Obama wins next week, that would give him ten straight. Then there will be a momentum change,” he said. But he added a caveat: “There is something about this election that we truly do not understand.” Indeed, the pundits have misjudged this election cycle with the predictions of an Obama win in New Hampshire and the end of the McCain campaign last summer.

Beyond the primaries, Mr. Gergen talked about foreign and domestic policy issues that get lost in the media excitement over the presidential race. He spoke about Iraq, Iran, the economy, health care, and global warming as the major issues facing the United States. He emphasized his opinion that the next President may have to face the most difficult and complicated issues since President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. As a veteran of Washington, Gergen shined most when he described what is and not politically possible. He related an exchange with Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria on whether the U.S. would subsidize green technology, saying “I turned to him and said that Congress would never subsidize China.”

On Barack Obama, Mr. Gergen had mixed feelings. He said Senator Obama holds an unknown factor-- that is, he has a very large potential upside and equally large potential downside if elected. According to Gergen, Barack Obama could come as the "beginning of a new politics” or could turn out to be “just another Jimmy Carter.”

Mr. Gergen held his highest praises for Senator John McCain. Gergen recounted the service Senator McCain gave to this country in detail and lauded the Senator as one of the greatest patriots this country has ever seen.Mr. Gergen was mostly unbiased in his political analysis, but advocated strongly for national service at the end of his talk. As a board member of Teach for America, he talked up the organization and its founder, Wendy Kopp. Yet, Gergen did not acknowledge some of the widespread criticisms over the effectiveness of the program.

Gergen expressed his hopes for the future of American politics, hoping that young Americans would step up and give the national service that is “expected” from our generation. Gergen opined that our generation is "more idealistic, more spiritual, and believes in social change.”

As happens occasionally at the Athenaeum, a student challenged the speaker directly during the Q & A session.  Charles Johnson ’11 disagreed with Gergen's ideas about national service, stating that paying taxes was enough service. Mr. Gergen turned the question on Mr. Johnson, asking if he paid his own tuition and whether he felt he owed anything to his country. Mr. Gergen, visibly taken aback by the student's responses, declared that national service is not "suggested," but is "expected." At this point, the audience erupted into applause and Mr. Johnson sat down.

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