Parsing politics with CNN’s David Gergen

Gergen and Peabody

CNN's David Gergen in conversation with Political Science Professor Bruce Peabody (L to R) at the Florham Campus. (Photos by Dan Landau)

By Kenna Caprio

CNN senior political analyst David Gergen described himself as a “short-term pessimist and long-term optimist” about America during a conversation and Q-and-A with Bruce Peabody, professor of political science, at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus.

“Who wants to copy American politics right now?” he asked the crowd of students, faculty and staff gathered in Lenfell Hall in Hennessy Hall on Thursday, Feb. 19. The former presidential adviser added he thinks partisan entrenchment will get worse before getting better, but that he has “great faith” that younger generations will bridge the divide.

“A new group of young people jumping into the arena can make a huge difference,” Gergen said.

He shared the story of freshman Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts with three degrees from Harvard University and four tours in Iraq, who challenged the incumbent candidate, won the primary and then the election. “Fight under one flag, govern under one flag,” Gergen recounted. “That’s a different kind of spirit than what we’ve seen in politics for a long time.”

The wide-ranging discussion and Q-and-A covered the 2016 presidential race, female empowerment, terrorism and international relations, the next generation of leaders, America as a world power and more.

Regarding a potential Hillary Clinton versus Jeb Bush presidential election match-up, Gergen said, regardless of the outcome, he feels “comfortable that whoever wins, we’re going to have a steadier hand on the wheel.” Since the Bill Clinton years, he said, the world has perceived U.S. foreign policy as “rash and too interventionist” under former President George W. Bush and “too passive and not willing” under President Barack Obama.

“Hillary is very feisty,” said Gergen. “We found that we disagreed on six issues out of every four. But I came to admire her as a fighter. She’s passionate about the empowerment of women and improving the lives of children, which I salute.” He added that Clinton is much more prepared to become president now after serving in the U.S. Senate and as secretary of state. “I continue to believe that breaking up the ‘old boys club’ is a good thing to do. What I’m less clear about is that we’d get past polarization.” He added, “I also have a lot of respect for Jeb Bush.” No matter the candidate though, he said, “Can you govern? That’s the really important question. Can anybody govern in this environment?”

After fielding questions from Peabody, Gergen answered a few audience questions.

Gergen and Jamie

David Gergen and Jamie Mulroony, a Florham junior and communications major, (L to R).

Jamie Mulroony, the junior communications major who introduced Gergen alongside University President Sheldon Drucker, asked about the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (which took place earlier in the week) and about the president’s reluctance to refer to ISIS as Islamic terrorists. Gergen replied: “In fairness to the president, you could argue this either way. I think he’s been right in one sense, push very hard that we’re not at war with Islam. Islam, by its nature, is not extreme or brutal. This is a group that’s hijacked the religion. Having said that, they are fighting us in the name of Islam. So to call this a struggle against extreme Islam does not seem to be wrong. I think there are times in public life that you need call it the way it is.”

Mulroony said later how “absolutely beyond honored, excited and nervous” she was to introduce Gergen. “I’m so grateful to have met somebody so successful — he’s advised four different presidents, that’s amazing!”

Another audience question turned to domestic issues, asking about the struggling middle class and growing income inequality. The Q-and-A closed on that topic, as Gergen answered that he thinks a two-pronged approach is necessary to achieve “equality of opportunity.” He suggests raising the minimum wage and having the earned income tax credit. “There ought to be an incentive to work and if you work, you ought to be able to support your family,” he said. “That’s fundamental. We have to work much harder to ensure that every child, every family has an equal shot at progressing.” Then he suggested turning the focus to promoting early education and encouraging participatory fatherhood.

Currently, “the biggest indicator of how a child will fare in life is determined by the zip code into which he’s born. That’s not equality of opportunity,” he said.

Gergen crowd

Gergen exited to a round of applause, shaking a few hands on his way out.

“It was great to have David Gergen on campus — up close and face-to-face with the FDU community,” said Peabody. “As a teacher, I appreciated the opportunity to show my students how ideas are projected into the public sphere and the corridors of power. As a citizen, it was a treat to converse with an influential journalist and adviser about world and domestic affairs. FDU creates many wonderful bubbles of learning, precious hours and minutes away from the tumult of everyday life. This was one of those welcome retreats.”

Following the campus event, Gergen spoke that evening at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J., as part of the inaugural season of the New Jersey Speakers Series presented by FDU.

Gergen served as a presidential adviser to both Republican and Democratic presidents, including Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is currently a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The New Jersey Speakers Series concludes with former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather on April 23. The series is sold by subscription only. For tickets or information, visit, or call 1-888-696-5722.