Presentation: Civility with David & Christopher Gergen

 

David Gergen

Christopher Gergen

Civility in Government and Politics 

Monday’s program was a unique format with featured speakers father and son team David and Christopher Gergen sharing a virtual platform: Chris manned the lectern in Durham and David was beamed in via satellite from his home in Cambridge, Mass.  

Wishing to allow as much time as possible for the program, Dallas Stallings kept his speaker introductions brief. He commented that entrepreneur and educator Christopher was a likely candidate for burning out at a young age, as he is involved in so many high-energy initiatives, while noting that Chris’s father, David, was likely the driving force that taught his son to burn the candle at both ends.  

Political commentator and presidential advisor David Gergen was born in Durham, graduating from Durham High School in 1959 in the last segregated class there. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Yale, he returned to Durham where he interned in the office of North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford. There Mr. Gergen became deeply involved in civil rights concerns, most notably the Good Neighbor Council, which took him across the state “focusing on jobs, education, and basically keeping the peace (in the early 60’s) during a very tumultuous political period in the south,” he said.  

Mr. Gergen went on to earn his law degree from Harvard, then served a three and a half year stint in the Navy. He began his political career in earnest in 1971 when he went to work for Richard Nixon during a period he described as “politically tense, but not a poisonous or deep as the divide we are experiencing today.” He characterized Nixon as a man possessed by hatred and internal demons with a dark side that he never truly learned to control, citing the President’s resignation as necessary to spare the country further turmoil.  

Mr. Gergen pointed out that President Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon represented a truly civil action, as Ford recognized that “the country couldn’t heal until the Nixon issues were off the table. Ford’s actions were courageous but cost him dearly as he sacrificed his own reputation,” Gergen said.  

Mr. Gergen emphasized that “the consistency of personal character of presidents both inside and outside of the White House has a profound impact on their capacity for authentic moral leadership. The most important factor in their ability to get things done heavily depends on earning the trust of Congress. Presidents set the tone in the White House much like the leader of any commercial organization sets the tone for shareholders and consumers alike.”  

Similarly, Gergen continued, Rotarians can set the tone for their communities, and praised the Durham club for creating an environment that welcomes diversity and an entrepreneurial mindset, a culture which is attractive to young innovators.  

Christopher turned the program then to a series of questions which had been submitted by club members, asking the senior Gergen to comment on how universities and colleges are attempting to navigate civility, an issue that touches all of higher education. Mr. Gergen responded by saying, “there is a lot of anxiety among the younger generation. Students are on edge, and unsure whether current leadership is capable of solving larger issues such as civil disagreement or climate change. 

“There are some similarities (in the collegiate political climate) to the 1960’s and 70’s,” he continued. “We came out of that period a stronger country from the experience, a kind of ‘that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ mindset. I would like to see more young people preparing to step into positions of leadership by giving back to their country.” Mr. Gergen believes firmly in requiring public and/or military service for all Americans, primarily during the ages between 18 and 24, to “mix diverse groups of people together with one common objective.”  

He went on to address some of the problems we are facing today, notably partisan politics, and the barriers they present to the exercise of civil behaviors. “Our system exacerbates polarization,” he said. “Red and blue states preceded President Trump and will persist long after he leaves office.” 

Mr. Gergen rues the negative effect that technology is having on civil discourse, noting that the anonymity of social media gives a public forum to disgruntled individuals with political axes to grind. “There is so much negative misinformation out there,” he said. “The Russians in particular are trying to divide us, and the media are undermining constructive social discourse. We simply can’t allow that to continue to happen.”  

He mourned the loss of a generation of outstanding, honorable journalists who felt that their role was not just to inform but to uphold the country’s values. “We need to encourage civil discourse with no tolerance for hate,” he insists. “It’s not so much how we deal with it, but how we can get past it.”  

Mr. Gergen closed by encouraging Rotarians to consider becoming ‘persons of significance.’ “Early in life, you are typically focused on becoming a ‘person of success,’ focusing on things such as career, marriage, family. But later in life there’s the opportunity to make an important transition by experiencing different perspectives and serving our communities and our country.”  

 

Submitted by: Carver C. Weaver 

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