Touching Hearts With Fire

By Gwyn Lurie   |   October 4, 2022
David Gergen was advisor to four U.S. Presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton

As an advisor to four U.S. Presidents, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, David Gergen had a front row seat to the highest levels of power and leadership in this country. As an editor for U.S. News and World Report, and a commentator on PBS and CNN, Mr. Gergen became a steady and rational voice on fast-changing political events. Now, as a Professor of Public Service and Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Gergen plays what is perhaps his most important role as a teacher and mentor to America’s next generation of leaders who are, according to him, redefining what power and leadership look like. 

In his recently released New York Times bestseller, Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made, Gergen puts forth a prescription for courage and character in public life, linking iconic examples from the past with today’s emerging young leaders to uncover fundamental elements of effective leadership. In this must-read book, Gergen strongly advocates for a passing of the torch to the next generation that is taking many different paths to leadership – often from the bottom up. 

“We are no longer living in a world in which leaders are formed only in our nation’s most elite institutions, groomed in public life, and take charge from the start. Those days are gone and thank goodness for it!” Gergen writes.

I love this book. In a world of hyperbole and extreme partisanship, Gergen’s voice is calm, clear, compassionate, and inspiring. His ideas are based on a rich body of research, experience, and deep contemplation. And most importantly, on a strong, unwavering belief in and love for this country, and the urgency of what’s at stake.

I had a chance to speak with Mr. Gergen about his book in which he advocates for a period of national service for young people. We discussed what he calls his short-term pessimism and long-term optimism, and his great sadness about the lost days of across-the-aisle friendships through which, not so long ago, leaders engaged with their philosophical counterparts to the great benefit of this country. For whatever it’s worth, this resonated with me personally, as I believe that my partnership at the MJ with Tim Buckley, with whom I often disagree politically, makes me better at my job and just generally a more empathic and open-minded human.

On October 11 at 7:30 pm, Mr. Gergen will be speaking at the Granada Theatre as part of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series, opening its Thematic Learning Initiative this season: Leadership & Vision. 

UCSB Arts & Lectures is providing free copies of Gergen’s book to the community that can be picked up at the downtown or Goleta libraries.

Leading From Within, one of our Giving List partners, will be hosting leadership roundtables based on the book and event on Thursday, October 13.

I hope you appreciate my conversation with David Gergen as much as I did: 

“…Through our great good fortune, in our youth, our hearts were touched by fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Gwyn Lurie: I really enjoyed your book, and I love the title, born out of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. quote. 

David Gergen: Yes.

GL: I think about some of the great books about leadership and power, and what’s going on in this world. But how can we help people to understand the sense of urgency we face if the only people reading a book like this are those of us who are open to being inspired by these sorts of ideas?

DG: Well, you put the toughest question first. Look, I think that if you’ve lived in California for the last few years with the fires and the raging temperatures, and the water, and you don’t think we’ve got a problem, then we’re not going to reach you. And I think that we’re walking in our sleep if we don’t pick up on the fact that we’re in danger. And our institutions are in serious danger.

And it’s not to say we can’t recover. We’ve had tough times in the past and I think it’s really important to remember the great crises that we had in the past that almost sank the Republic, whether it was the early days of the Republic or the Civil War, or The Great Depression, or World War II.

We’ve had moments that have been almost as dark as this, when there was a sense of hopelessness at various times, and we eventually bounced back; and I mean, Abigail Adams famously wrote to her son, John Quincy, when he was a teenager, the tough times of adversity were what called people forward. It brought them out and they produced great statesmen and noble leaders. I think we can be encouraged over the long haul. I’m discouraged about the near term. I think we’re in for some very rough passages.

Not helped by an economy that’s become vulnerable… Michael Porter at the Harvard Business School has done a study on American competitiveness that concluded in the last couple of years, that our underlying economy is actually quite strong, but that we’re endangered by our politics. Our economy is endangered by our politics.

GL: I often think about the Joseph Welch moment, in the Senator McCarthy hearings in 1954, when, having had enough, Welch, special counsel for the U.S. Army, asked Senator McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” That question really marked the end of the anti-communist Red Scare in this country. And I wonder if that could ever happen today when so few of our leaders seem to feel shame or care about decency. Why do you have faith that this next generation of leaders will be any different?

DG: Because I think the next generation of leaders are coming to recognize that this is going to be their problem a few years from now and it’s going to be their climate, and it’s going to be their challenges to our democracy, and we could go down. I mean, I think we can go either way at this point.

And you see it’s very important to recognize that this is not simply an American phenomenon, it’s a global phenomenon. The Freedom House, which does surveys on the degree of freedom in countries around the world, they do it on an annual basis, whether people are moving toward more freedom or less freedom, more authoritarianism, and freedom has been in retreat after many years of growth. It has been in retreat every year for the last 16 years. 

GL: Why?

DG: It’s because so many more countries are giving up or feeling like capitalism isn’t delivering. They’re under pressure and they’re drifting toward authoritarianism. In many cases, the leaders get elected. Look at Brazil. Brazil’s going to have a very important election coming up and they started out with a guy, Bolsonaro, who is a Democrat. I mean, he pledged a democracy, and he’s now turned into an authoritarian. That same thing happened to Orbán in Hungary. He started out on the democratic side of the ledger, and clearly, we’ve seen that in at least one major instance in our own country.

GL: You point to courage and character as foundational for emerging leaders. But as we see today in so many of our elected leaders, and you just alluded to probably the most obvious example, that character is not always strong, and courage can be used wrongly and dangerously. How can we do a better job of building strong character in our children?

DG: I think our children watch carefully. They see what’s happening among adults and I’m running into a growing number of students who feel things are hopeless and that they can’t turn it around, but I do think there’s a minority that’s growing, that’s very talented, who are totally resisting the directions in which we’re going. They’re gaining power and then in their twenties and thirties, people can begin to make a significant difference.

Look at what’s happened around the world with say, Greta Thunberg in Sweden or Malala in Pakistan, or women of color with BLM and the Me-Too movements. Who were in their twenties and thirties. You can still mobilize. Martin Luther King Jr. was pretty young when he mobilized. You can mobilize, but you’ve got to stick with it. You can’t have one time around the block and with 200,000 people. One of the reasons the conservatives are becoming so much more powerful is they’re 24/7 in their politics. They’re not weekend warriors. This is something they believe in fervently and they keep pushing and pushing and pushing as they did on abortion, and eventually they got their way, and the people who oppose that have to get into the arena and stay in the arena and be patient about this because it’s going to be a long struggle to get these things done.

GL: One of my favorite cartoons is a MAD magazine picture of Alfred E. Neuman blissfully sitting in a tire swing that hangs from a branch, not realizing that the branch is not connected to a tree; he didn’t know what couldn’t be done, so he did it. And I think about your example of the Parkland students, and your Greta Thunberg and Malala examples…

DG: Yes.

GL: In a way it seems like, in some cases, ignorance or inexperience can be helpful. Because you can’t be preoccupied by obstacles you’ve not yet come up against. 

DG: I think what can draw a person in is experience. That you get in the arena, you get banged up and you realize this is tougher than I thought. And the higher up you get – we used to have a saying in the Reagan White House, the higher up the monkey goes the more you see its rear end – and that’s true about people getting into the arena. It’s pretty tough, sometimes. Man, it’s certainly not going to be handed to you.

…I think there are numerous examples now of young people who want to be helpful. They’re hungry for change. They’re voting significantly to the left. I don’t think they really fully appreciate what socialism is, but they nonetheless understand that capitalism isn’t working well for them, and then if they’re burdened down by debt too, then it becomes all the more problematic whether you really can take a year or two years out, but I believe we ought to be helping young people prepare for their time in the arena… by coaching and mentoring young people and trying to help them with scholarships to get through school and that sort of thing.

But I also believe we need one big fundamental new program that offers something to young people, and I’m a big proponent, you see in the book, of National Service. Having young people give a year back to their communities. Young people who have never met each other before, come from different parts of town, who grew up with different zip codes, and have that kind of diversity. I think spending a year together, working on things, projects like Habitat for Humanity, can be enormously reviving. I’ve been on the board for Teach for America. I can say there are a lot of people who come through those classrooms who would never have been there had it not been for Teach for America and the charter school movement, the KIP program.

GL: How important do you think it is for our leaders to be well educated? Formally or otherwise.

DG: I don’t think it’s important at all that all leaders be well educated. I think that there’s room for different kinds of service. I quote Martin Luther King in the book, that you don’t need to have gone to an elite school to serve the country. What you need is what’s in your soul, not the diploma. I’m a deep believer that elite universities have a role and they have a serious role, and I’ve obviously benefited from that. I’m a product of affirmative action. I wouldn’t have gotten into the college I got into had it not been. In fact, I came from the South years ago and two older brothers got in, and I was able to get in. Affirmative action now is properly serving a new generation. Instead of whites it’s serving Blacks, mostly people of color, which is terrific. We need that.

GL: I’m going to push you on this education piece for a moment. Because I agree with you. I don’t think you need to go to Harvard to serve, Peter Jennings never went to college, but he was self-educated. He was a voracious reader and he understood history. 

DG: Yes. I totally agree with that.

GL: History has, as you point out in your book, sped up so fast. How do you have confidence that this generation can ride this tidal wave of time if they don’t read?

DG: Well, curiosity is more important than a college education sometimes, because a curious person is the person who tends to be self-educated and educates for life. That’s where you’ll find the readers, and I believe very strongly in the importance of reading, and… I was thinking what Truman said was: “Not every reader is a leader, but every leader is a reader,” and I think that’s very simple, but sometimes simplicity captures truth.

GL: One of the four presidential administrations you worked for was the Clinton administration. And I remember Clinton, in a conversation with someone who had just become a grandfather, advised him to teach his grandchild to, “Get to know as many different kinds of people in life as possible.” You write in your book about the relationship then-Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, had with President Reagan, and of course Ruth Bader Ginsburg had her famous relationship with Antonin Scalia… That’s not happening today, friendships across the aisle. Why is that?

DG: That’s right. The point was, in the past, Reagan and Tip for example, had a five o’clock deadline. Then after that they would take off their boxing gloves. That was the point you’re making. That does not happen. I think that’s one of the great sadnesses of our time. That if you spend time with the other side, you’re regarded by your own side as a betrayal. You’re a traitor, and that makes life awfully difficult for people, but again, I come back to the fact that over time, the people who stand up for principles are often celebrated. Look at the outpouring support for Liz Cheney or indeed look at Adam Kinzinger on the Republican side. Guy has given up his job. Given up his life on principle, and he’s going to do well in life. I’m not sure he’ll ever come back to Congress, but he’s going to do well in life because people have so much respect for him. And what better example have we had in recent years than Queen Elizabeth? That again, there’s this quality of character, of honesty, of being straightforward, of being dignified. The old school, I think, still has appeal to people even though we give a lot of attention to the extremists. I think we in the press ought to stop feeding off the extremists the way we do.

GL: You say in your book that the internet has made it easier to gain power, but harder to exercise it…

DG: Yeah. Yeah, I do believe that and easier to lose it.

GL: Can you talk about what that means and how can leaders possibly play a role in uniting us if there is no agreed upon set of facts or place where we get our common information?

DG: It goes back to this old Moynihan quote about you’re entitled to your own views, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. This is a serious problem that not only are there bad actors who are pouring out disinformation, and it’s not just here at home; look what we’ve just learned about how the Russians were trying to interfere with the March on Washington by women, which was startling to see; you have these sewage lines of disinformation, that have overwhelmed us in so many ways. What has surprised me is how many people believe it… against and in the face of so little evidence. In fact, the evidence runs the other way.

I’m discouraged about that. It’s one place where I do think that a college education does make a difference. We do know that college educated people are much less likely to believe this than people who have not finished college. I mean, there’s a fair amount of evidence on that.

I don’t know how to get here to a more plain-spoken country. I do see signs that our people are working now on the idea of potentially a third party. Again, I think these problems are likely to get worse in the next few years than better, but I do think that we have a generation that’s waiting and that the torch is going to be passed. I think that’s inevitable.

GL: That’s your long-term optimism you talk about.

DG: It is. Well, it’s my great hope. It’s what gives me hope when I wake up in the morning, that this is going to turn out all right at the end of the day, but we’re not going to get there anytime soon.

GL: Let’s talk about one of the main problems, which is money, right?

DG: Yes. Yes.

GL: Money plays such an outsized and determinate role in becoming an elected leader in this country. How, without removing money from the center of politics, can we hope to attract the best and the brightest to want to step into public service?

DG: I think it continues to be the case that when you’re deciding whether to run for office or not so much depends upon whether you have deep pockets or access to money. So many good people I know in the college level are chased off or they don’t want to do it. Let me give you an example. One stream of leaders that I talk about in the book, that I really have great admiration for, are the young men and women coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq and coming back in their military uniforms. Many of whom have been in serious danger along the way. Now, I think by and large, those people remind me very much of the World War II generation that I thought was terrific, but I know talking to a lot of these veterans, one of the main questions they ask before they jump into the arena is, “Can I raise the money?” They don’t want to spend six months, a year, a year-and-a-half of their lives running around, and there’s no question in my mind that it’s not just a question whether individuals have more money, but I also find that people who’ve gone to elite schools tend to have more access to money.

GL: And if you have access to money, you have a net under you. So you know even if you’re not making a lot of money in Congress, or worse, on a city council, you’re still going to be able to have a good life.

DG: Exactly, and you’re going to be able to go on to a good life and continue to have a good life. You’re going to be in pretty good shape on that. But I look at a guy called Wes Moore.

GL: He ran the Robin Hood Foundation…

DG: That’s right. He ran Robin Hood, and he is a terrific young man. He’s never had much money in life and Cory Booker didn’t come out of money. It is possible, but it’s hard. It’s just very, very hard.

GL: Another problem is that good people find the mean spiritedness of politics today very hard to take. 

DG: I know. It’s particularly hard. Now, you have activists show up outside your door in the morning with TV cameras… because they disagree with what you’re trying to say.

GL: You write about how rising leaders experience what you call crucibles. Or unexpected blows. Why is this important?

DG: Yeah. What we know about what we call crucibles, these are major, often unexpected setbacks. They come out of the blue sometimes and suddenly you just get knocked down by a heart attack or one of your children is badly hurt, or you lose a child, and these are moments of despair for a lot of people, and what we know from psychologists like Daniel Seligman, who is the father of positive psychology… he concluded that there are actually three different kinds of outcomes. Some people who come away from a crucible never recover. They’ve got a cloud over their heads the rest of their lives. Life is dark and short; but there’s a second group that has resilience, and they basically get back to where they were before they got knocked down; but then there is a third group that not only is resilient, but grows in marginal purpose as a result of what they’ve been going through. You look at John McCain, having been a POW and had life almost squeezed out of him, he just took blow after blow, but he came back more determined than ever and played a different form of politics. He was willing to take the shot and go across the aisle and work with Democrats and it made a big difference.

I think most famously, both Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor, had crucibles. Franklin with his polio. Which was the most dreaded disease of his time. It was often thought that people who had polio were contagious. It was a real mark on them when you got it, and Franklin Roosevelt thought, well, he could eventually get up and walk again. After all, if he wanted to be in politics, the language of politics is out of running. You run for this, you run for that, and he couldn’t walk. But eventually he was reconciled to it and he became a completely different kind of a political leader than he had been before he was struck down.

GL: I think that’s so true, that we come out of these moments with greater humility. With greater empathy. But also, an understanding that in order to win, you have to be willing to lose.

DG: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I, generally speaking, try not to vote for anybody who hasn’t been knocked down at least once. You don’t want to be defeated two or three times, but one time is going to be quite salutary.

GL: It was very good for Churchill.

DG: Very good for Churchill. It was very good for Bill Clinton. He went, ran for one term in Arkansas and he got his head handed to him, and he was out of power for a while, but it really woke him up and he was a better leader after that.

GL: I was recently asked who my greatest teachers were, and I said my greatest teacher has been failure. 

DG: Yes. Yes. 

GL: But today’s leaders aren’t really willing to fail. They seem first and foremost interested in holding onto power.

DG: Yes, and I think that is one of the evolutions that has taken place. That people used to do politics out of principle and now what’s mostly important to them is power, and they cling to power. They cling to the curtains.

GL: And so many leaders have, in effect, become a brand. Hemmed in by their own professed ideology, and they end up stuck there, not able to benefit from their own learnings, because they’re afraid that will be seen as a betrayal by their followers.

DG: Right. Right. I think sometimes in politics we obsess too much on the public policy issue and not on the larger reality, and we have fights about things which are not going anywhere, but it provides the basis for squabbling and sending out I need more money in order to protect this thing… I mean, I don’t have a lot of faith in what leaders promise during a campaign, because we’re living in a very volatile world now and life changes so rapidly in front of our eyes that believing there’s only one answer to a public policy problem is just nonsense; and what’s more important, is for leaders to have the character and the end detail, and the capacity and the willingness to face harsh realities, and then work within that. To be pragmatic about it. The people who achieve the most in political life are usually those who are either center left or center right, but they’re not way over to the edge.

GL: You point to humor in your book as an important quality in great leaders. I agree with this, and I would add creativity to that. But we live in this time of political correctness and cancel culture. People are scared to go out on a limb with humor or even with innovative thinking.

DG: Yeah. I know. I don’t want to get into this conversation because it’s too loaded. It’s too fraught within, but the way people are having to tiptoe in college. Men and women are having to tiptoe around with a lot of the stuff that’s going on in their lives, because you can get nailed so easily. Yes. Yes, I agree with that, and it also is limiting on nuance. People are impatient and don’t want to wait around for the nuance. And often that’s where the truth is.

GL: You were an advisor to four U.S. presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton. Here’s the six-million-dollar question that I know you’ve been asked many times: who was your favorite and why?

DG: Oh, yeah.

GL: Only one of them is alive, so if you want to say Clinton it’s okay.

DG: There you go. I like that. You’re signed up… Well, the truth is it was easier in some ways with Clinton, and in retrospect it worked out fine. There were a fair number of body blows and you can see the scars on my back at some point from when I changed over, or least went to work for Clinton. Even though I was nowhere near as conservative as Reagan, I thought Reagan created a better environment for political leadership. And Clinton was obviously very smart, and we’ve been friends for a long time.

GL: Well, this leads to my penultimate question. You’re advocating for the passing of the leadership baton to the next generation.

DG: Yes. Time to pass.

GL: Where does the experience and wisdom that comes with some age fit in… I assume you still think that there’s a place for that in leadership?

DG: Oh, yeah. I think what you want to do, if you want to have a really good team, you hire young people for energy and you hire older people for wisdom and you need both. I would be the last to argue that you want to come sweeping in with a group of 25-year-olds to run the country, but I also have great reservations about having somebody who’s 85 years old run the country. I think that there are some individuals who do extremely well in life, into their seventies and eighties, and indeed later than that, but I think that’s a relatively small number. And recognizing that we live in an increasingly complex world that’s made much more so by the internet, it makes a real difference to have somebody coming into power who understands the internet, understands how to make it work versus somebody who doesn’t. I mean, I’m an ignoramus on the internet, but I insist on anybody I hire understanding it. It’s really important.

I was just with the basketball coach at Harvard, came down to teach a class for me a couple days ago, and he used to work for Coach K, the Duke basketball coach. Coach K is now almost 70 years old, and what he has figured out, is that if he’s going to really communicate well with his players who are 19, 20, 21 years old, he needs a middle person somewhere. Someone who’s in their thirties or so to be an interpreter for him to the younger players and he needs that middle person to also be an interpreter to K, to let him understand what’s going on in the heads of the younger people, and I think both are necessary. I don’t think there’s any single group, but I do think as a general proposition, someone who is really a great choice is a great exception at the age of 85 to be a choice. Most major corporations have a rule or standard basically that they expect people to step aside at 65, 67, and there’s a reason for that.

GL: Why’d you write this book?

DG: Because I’ve been teaching in this field for a number of years. I figure, I really ought to write this down and I’d like to pass it on, and maybe I can reach a larger audience, because I am a champion of change, but mostly I’m a champion of the younger generation and the idea that I think we owe it to them to do everything we can to prepare them for leadership, and I think they owe to us a load of responsibility, but the next few years are going to be ones in which we decide whether this will work or not. Whether this nation will stand or continue to be the beacon that it has been for people around the world, and I think it could go either way. 

I’m discouraged about the next few years, but I draw hope from the qualities, the personal qualities, the character, the integrity, the humility, the empathy, the kind of qualities we look for in our individual leaders. I hope that they will be the qualities we find in our next generation.  


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