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David Gergen
Landon Lecture
Friday, Nov. 2, 2001

 

Sept. 11 is a New Call to Public Service

 

Had we gathered before Sept. 11, I might have used that opportunity to look back upon the presidents I have been privileged to serve and try to reflect on lessons that I learned about leadership from them, something which I tried to capture in my own book. And there's some interesting parallels between our two works. But given where we are, it seems to me that it's particularly important that we talk here today about where we are as a nation and where we're heading.

Barry Flinchbaugh said he has a class of about 100 students, and people really do want to talk about what's been happening in the country and what it represents for the years ahead. Now, it's pretty clear we do not know what the future holds. We are in a time of enormous uncertainty. This is an extraordinarily complex set of issues that we as a people and the President of the United States now face as we look ahead, because we have intertwined here not only a war overseas, but the threats, the assaults here at home and now an economy that's reeling. And how all of those sort of play out together I'm not sure anybody yet knows, and it would be foolish to predict. What is important at this time is that we understand what we already know since the 11th of September, and that's what I'd like to address for a few moments, and then I'll be glad to take whatever questions, thoughts, comments that you wish to offer.

I think we have learned at least three major lessons since Sept. 11. One is we have learned anew about the character of American and of Americans. Before Set. 11 there was a lot of chatter - in Britain they call them among the chattering classes - about the degree to which Americans seem to be living separate, isolated lives, how little care there seemed to be for community, how we were becoming perhaps more selfish, more individualistic, that our individualism which has been a great strength of this country, had become excessive and that we were falling back from community. And what's been so interesting in the hours and days since Sept. 11, since those attacks, is how rapidly we snapped back into character and that you see the traditional American character now coming to the fore again.

When Alexis de Tocqueville came to these shores in the 1830's and wrote the - what I think many of us continue to believe is the finest work of political science about America that's ever been written, "Democracy in America, " he commented upon what distinguished Americans with so many in Europe was how - if a farmer was out on the prairie, somewhere out on the plains and his barn burned down, how all of the neighbors came the next day to help rebuild the bard, that people cared for each other and we exercised our freedom through free association, by joining up with each other when troubled times hit and coming to each other's aid. and that is just what has happened in the hours since Sept. 11.

If one has - if you have the opportunity to go into New York City, it's remarkable to talk to people about how much of a sense of community has returned to New York. the streets are filled there with pictures of people who were lost and small services that are being held, especially in the lower part of New York, and there's a civility there that we have not seen for a long time. but people really have cared for each other. Companies have been donating, $100 million came in within the first 48 hours. People were lined up to give blood. All over America people joined to see what they could do to help.

I had the opportunity to hear President Clinton when he came to New Haven recently for the tercentennial celebration at Yale. And he spoke about his experience going to one of the centers in New York City where the victims, families were coming for consolation and bereavement counseling and the like, and he walked in and a man came p to him and said, "We have seen each other before. We last say each other in Oklahoma City." And the President said, "Well, tell me about that." And the fellow said, "I'm from Oklahoma City, and my wife was in that building that was blown up there, and you came out here and you consoled me but I was extraordinarily lonely. And when I saw those planes fly into the World Trade Center buildings and understood the magnitude of what was happening, that afternoon I got in my car and I drove from Oklahoma City here to New York so that I could be here, so that other people would not be as lonely as I was. I could be here for them to talk to." Now, that's the spirit of what we are all about as a people, and that spirit has captured once again the heart of the nation.

I'm reminded that not far from here Dwight Eisenhower had this sense - Mr. Seaton's uncle was in his cabinet. Dwight Eisenhower had a sense about America, one of his favorite stories about who we are as a people. He went back to the early days of the country, and he said, "Most of the time people live individual lives in America, and we go about our day and we try to earn a living for our family, we try to keep bread on the table, we try to keep things moving in the family and we think about ourselves first and our community second. But the tradition of the country was that when people had to form a wagon train to go across the country, a lot of people dropped what they were doing and they signed up for the wagon train, and then they became part of a team and they became part of something larger than themselves. And they had this team spirit, and they formed these wagon trains that went up over the Appalachians and then out across the prairies, up over the great mountains in the west. And then when they got to California, everybody went to the beach."

That's the tradition we have. We're individuals on one end and then we join this great journey, and when the journey is over we go back and become individuals again. Well, we're on another journey now. That's what we have signed up for. That's what we're engaged in, and I believe that as long as the journey requires, no matter how high the mountains, we'll make it together, we'll stick together. And that's what I think the first lesson is that we've learned out these last few weeks.

The second lesson I would like to suggest to you is that we have been reminded once again that public service matters. Here over the last 15 to 20 years we have experienced this economic boom, this economic renaissance in America. We have spent a great deal of time celebrating the lives of private figures, the new hotshots of Silicon Valley or of Redmond. People are coming along in the life sciences, people are building companies, and we should have celebrated their lives and their accomplishments, because they have built a new economy. What has been going on in the private sector of this county is nothing less than miraculous, and we have built fortunes and prospects for the future that stretch far beyond anything we could have imagined before. Our very success is one of the reasons why so many others around the world are resentful and why its' easy for hatred of America to boil up, because we're so far ahead. We have this incredible power.

Larry Summers, the new president of Harvard, said in a speech not long ago that I heard, "Not in 500 years has there been as large a gap as there is today between the number one power in the world and the number two power in the world in terms of economic might, political might, military might and cultural influence." Not in 500 years.

So we should celebrate those in the private sector who have brought us to this point. But in the process of celebrating those in the private sector we have also denigrated those who serve in the public sector. We have treated them as if increasingly they are second raters and second class citizens. We have stripped them of much of their dignity by the way we pay them, by the way we talk about them, by the way we cut down the size of their organization so they can't get their work done, and now when trouble hits we have seen how much we depend upon people in public life, public servants, and how often the faces of public servants are those of average working people, blue collar people who are so critical to keeping this new economy going. We need people in very traditional jobs, doing very important services, and it's important that we honor them once again.

The pictures we have not seen on television are perhaps some of the most important pictures of what happened on Sept. 11. In those buildings, when those planes hit, there were thousands of people working in those buildings, and, of course, every one of us, just as they did, your first instinct is to get down those stairs and get out of trouble. And people came rushing down those stairs. The picture we will never see is of those people streaming down the stairs and at the same time there were some people going up those stairs, going up those stairs toward those infernos, and they were firemen and policemen and chaplains and others who were trying to save Americans and people from all over the world who were up in those towers.

I just heard the story the other day of a fireman who got - there's a mass being said for him this weekend at St. Patrick's Cathedral - and he got up to the 40th floor in the second tower - they knew the first tower had collapsed - his buddy said, "Let's get out of here, we need to go." And he said, "I think I can find some more people, I think I can save some more people," and, of course, he lost his life.

Now, we've talked a lot about the importance of money in our society and how we celebrate how much people make. Those fireman and policemen did not do that, they did not put their lives on the line because of how much money they were being paid. They put their lives on the line because they had a sense of mission, they cared about others, and that's the spirit of public service. It's also important to remember the public school teachers who were so close by. You know, there were 8,000 children within a few blocks of the World Trade Center that morning. Many of them had parents in those buildings. All 8,000 of those children were evacuated safely, without major injury because of the public school teachers who were there for them.

There's a public school called PS232 that's about two blocks away from one of those towers, eight- and nine-year-old students in that school, and when the first tower went down and the debris came out, the smoke came out, the classrooms filled with that debris and smoke. The first instinct if you were a teacher is to run for your life - if you're an adult you'd run for your life.

Those teachers did not do that. They stayed there in those classrooms and they got the children to line up and to hold hands, and they walked the children out holding hands, everybody holding hands with a buddy, with a friend.

As they walked out of that classroom and they were outside, one of the students looked up -an eight-year-old looked up and say burning bodies falling from those towers, and he said, "Look, Teacher, the birds are on fire, the birds are on fire." All those students made it. Those teachers held hands and in some cases carried kids on their shoulders to safety.

That's the nature of public service, and it's time we remember and honor those who serve us in the way they do. I say this with particular reference now to those of you who are young and thinking about what you may do with your lives in the years ahead, partly because we are now facing a crisis in many parts of public service. At the federal government level, many, many people came and signed up for government service back in the '60s, it was a time many thought of idealism, many people wanted to come in, they heard the call to service, they came in. That generation is now retiring. Senior executives in the federal government, senior executives, 70 percent are within five years of early retirement.

The overall civil service federal level, over 50 percent are within five years of early retirement. We have tons and tons of people about to go out one end of the pipeline, and we have not been able to attract good people in to the front end of the pipeline. I teach - I'm privileged to teach at the Kennedy School of Government, we teach Master's students that come out with degrees in public policy, public administration. Less than half of our graduates go to work in the government. Less than half of our graduates. and that's true of every public policy school in the country, because the lure of working for a consulting firm like McKenzie or Bain, one of those, has been so powerful. I teach students who look at their life's options, and what do they say, "Look, I can go the State department for $34,000 or $38,000 a year, I can go to one of the financial services firms for over a $100,000 a year, and I've got some debts, what do you think the rational choice is?"

So they go. And we are losing many of them to the private sector when we need good people in the public and public life, because we understand again how important it is. In my judgment this is a seminal moment in the life of the younger generation. This is a moment that's not unlike what a lot of us went through who were in the early '60s when the civil rights movement cam along. And we understood this was a seminal moment in our lives about whether you signed up or did not. It's not unlike what happened back in the early 1940s when America was attacked at pearl harbor, and so many went and signed up as they did. George Bush, Sr., left eh day after graduation from his high school, his prep school, he went and signed up against his father's advice, and he became at 18 the youngest flyer shot down over the Pacific, almost lost his life. But he wanted to go sign up for his country. And it's really important now for those of you who are young to think about how do you help? Is there a way we can challenge and channel all of your energy or desire to help the country?

I was coming out of Memorial Church, it's the church on the Harvard campus, a couple of Sundays after Sept. 11, and a young man who was a senior, freshly scrubbed head usher, came up to me and said, "All of my life has changed. I wanted to go to New York and work in a financial services firm. Now, I'd like to help my country." He said, "And I went and looked at the Army, I thought maybe I ought to go sign up for the Army. The Army doesn't need me. They don't need a lot more soldiers right now for this war.: And then he said, "Where do I sign up?" Where do I sign up? Pointed question. And I will tell you that as adults one of our responsibilities is to make sure there are opportunities out there for you to sign up if you wish to serve, and to increase those opportunities and to increase the attractiveness of public servants, because it is not what it should be. The jobs are more dead-end than they should be and it's our responsibility to open that up and to change it.

One of the avenues we have for that, I might tell you, is a bill that John McCain - Senator McCain and Evan Bayh, Democratic senator of Indiana are co-sponsoring on national service. Keep an eye on it. It's not going to pass this year but it's going to be an important bill next year to open up to double the number of public service opportunities that are available for the younger generation.

But I cannot underscore enough this is a seminal moment in the life of the younger generation, a time when they can understand what America's all about, when they can become civically engaged, when they can join up just as the World War II generation joined up. And if they do so, this could become the next generation that someone one day would call the greatest generation. That's the opportunity we have if we don't let it slip away from us.

So when I was sitting here - you have this fine young man who's president of your student body, and thinking what he might do, I said, "I hope you think about continuing, this is such a springboard being president of the student body, it's a springboard for political life, and you have had senators, of course, who have come through K-State." But those of you who are not student body presidents, this is a time when you can go out and join up and help the country, because we need it.

Now, finally I'd like to go to a third lesson about what we have seen in the last few weeks, and that is the importance of public leadership. We have stressed in recent years how important it is to have people in the private sector. Our business schools are overflowing with young men and women who want to be leaders in the private sector, but we've learned once again in the last weeks how important public sector leaders are, and we've learned a little bit more about the nature of leadership.

Prime example number one, the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. It was wonderfully interesting to watch him. He's a man who's had an up and down career as mayor of that city and he was nearing the end of his terms there with the life that he was going to give the city, and along came this crisis. And Rudy Giuliani right from the moment the planes hit, rushed downtown. He had debris all over him but he was right there on the front lines and out among people who were suffering, and telling the country, telling the world what was happening in New York. Telling the people of New York what was happening around them.

And what did he do as leader? He gave courage to the people of New York by being there on the screen among his people. He helped them understand they could get through this. As tough as it was, they would make it. And what you heard from him was a man who did exactly what a leader must do in a crisis. You heard from him the hard facts, "Here's what's happening." He did not sugar coat what was happening. He told them exactly what was going on. No BS, just tell them straight. He told them they were going to get through it. He told them everybody should care for each other, that people should hug their kids, and he told them, "We're going to make it." He gave not only a voice of caring as a leader must to in a crisis, but he gave a voice of defiance against those who had struck.

And that's the voice of New York. He gave voice to his people, and he was so classically a New Yorker. Everything about him was just about like New York. It was like those guys coming up two outs in the ninth inning, two nights in a row, two nights in a row. Unbelievable. And smacking the ball out of the park in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Hanging in there and winning, that's what the spirit of New York is all about, and he gave voice to it.

Now, one of the secrets that you learn about why he was able to do that - are two that I think are worth mentioning this morning. One is that the City of New York had prepared for crisis. Leadership is not something you do on the spur of the moment. Good organizations spend lots of time preparing for what may come, for what may hit, they work on it, they prepare for it. Its' the very reason President Wefald was telling me earlier today, that you're looking now to build a $40 million building here to deal with agriterrorism, and how one can prepare for it. that's what leadership is all about, thinking ahead, what might be coming, let's get prepared now. And because the City of new York had prepared the way they had - they had run drill after drill after drill not for this particular incident, but for anything that might hit. when it hit they didn't have to start holding a lot of meetings. They executed. they had their game plan, they hit the field and started moving, and part of the game plan was for Rudy to get out on the streets, and that's what he did. And that preparation paid off.

I will tell you, I talked to Gov. Pataki after this, and said, "How about you and your leadership-" because he was such a fine leader, and he said, "I can't tell you how much of a difference it makes because we had prepared." He said, "When I signed the disaster petition to the President of the United States, somebody reminded me it was the 17th disaster petition I have signed as governor of the State of New York. And so we've been through this. We know, and we were prepared."

So preparation is such an important part of leadership, and that's why one spends time in school, learning, because it prepares your mind. That's why you spend time in discipline or out on the football field or with groups, because it prepares you for when that moment hits that you can step forward and be the leader and help people through, and that's where Giuliani was.

Now, the other lesson to learn about Giuliani here was that he is a reader. He reads history, he enjoys it. And as it happened he had been reading a book called Five Days in London, May, 1940. It's a slim volume by a fellow named John Lucas, and it's about Winston Churchill. And Giuliani had been reading that, and it's about the five days when Churchill took over as prime minister of England at one of the darkest moments in British history, when western civilization itself was in peril, when people thought the British could not make it, and how he rallied them. And what did Churchill do, he gave voice to the British lion. He became what we call Churchillian. And people looked at him and said, "You know, we're going to make it." And Rudy having read that, went out and became in effect the Churchill.

Now, what did Churchill say in that book? what he says is that when trouble strikes-as it has struck here today-when trouble strikes it's okay to be frightened on the inside, all of us, with anthrax, anthrax was found here in Kansas yesterday. All of us have fears about what may befall us when you fly, when you drive, what may happen to your kids in particular. All of us have room to be fearful. but Churchill said, "What you need to do is to be fearful on the inside. On the outside you must be courageous, because courage is contagious and if you're courageous as a leader other people become courageous, and as a people you can get through it." And that's what Giuliani did. After all, that's what Franklin Roosevelt did during the depression and during the Second World War. FDR as president did not solve the depression, but he gave us courage and hope so we got through the depression. That's what he offered the country , and that's what leadership does in times of crisis.

I want to come back to this one notion, I don't want to leave this because it's so important. Giuliani got that though reading, through studying history.

While I was at the Truman Library this summer I had a chance to look through some of Truman's papers. And one day some high school students had come to the library after Truman left the presidency, and President Truman came out to see them and brief them and talk to them at an auditorium set up for that purpose. And one of the things he said to them was-he talked to them about the importance of reading. Harry Truman, as you know, was the only president of the 20th Century who did not go to college. He was too poor, he had to go work on the family farm when he graduated from high school. But he became a self-education man, and one of the best read, best educated people we've ever had in the White House as a result.

And he said to those students-this was Harry Truman to the students-he said, "Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers." Important understanding, and at that very moment when he was called upon in time of crisis, Rudy Giuliani had been reading exactly the right book.

Now, there is one other individual I think we really ought to talk about, because it encompasses largely where we are going as a people. And that is the President of the United States, President George W. Bush. There was a time not long ago when a lot of people called him W, and there was uncertainty whether he was up to this task, whether he had the kind of preparation, background. He seemed to have the temperament, he seemed to have the character that he had built up over time. It had taken him awhile. He had to walk on the wild side when he was young. It may encourage some of you who like to go over to Aggieville. In his case it was a rather extended tour. But there you are. And he had formed his character and he was very strong. but we weren't sure he was up to it. And I think what we have seen when the crisis came, he grew. There's been an enormous amount of growth.

Those of you who enjoy Shakespeare I think inevitably are drawn back to the comparison of what he had been seeing before was perhaps a young Prince Hal, Alanese chief, with Falstaff and his friends, the madcap prince carousing, chasing women, whatever, and when trouble hit, how rapidly we left behind the pages of Henry the 4th and suddenly we seem to be into the pages of Henry the 5th. There had been a transformation as young George W. Bush stepped up to. Now, to be sure, he has not won his Agincourt, but he has set sail, and for that the country can be grateful.

I was so struck as I found this book today, "University Renaissance," but the lessons of leadership that are here, that are captured-they run all through the book, but they're captured right at the back, and how much they seem to parallel some of the things we are seeing with President Bush.

Jon Wefald's eight characteristics of excellent leadership: Among them, one, have a vision and develop a game plan. Isn't that very much what our young president has done? Hasn't he set us out on a mission to break the back of terrorism around the world wherever we may find it? Don't we know what our mission is, from what he said when he went up to the Congress, and develop that. To be sure there are going to be complications, but we know what the mission is. The game plan is going to take longer to develop, because game plans often are - represent a dynamic flow, you can't decide, it's a series of decisions you make over time. You've got to know what your goals are, you've got to know what your values are, and then you have to make a flow of decision over time to reach that.

Two, communicate your vision. That speech to the Congress, which the whole country, the whole world tuned in, was, I think, right down the alley. Almost as good a pitch as he threw on the opening night at Yankee Stadium.

Three, hire excellent people and delegate authority and responsibility. Well, think about that. If there is an one characteristic about this president I think we could be most please about, it is that he understood before he was elected his own limitations, his own lack of experience. He had not traveled much, he had not had a chance to read much. Frankly, I wish he had read more. I wish he had traveled more. I think he would be in better shape had he done that. But he did have the understanding of who he was, and he was willing to appoint people in positions around him who were better than he was at what they were doing. And you get it - read the chapter on team building here in this book, and it's all about the notion of finding people who are better than you are. And that's why he thinks - and those around here think - that this university has had such a flowering in recent years, it's such a good team that's been put in place around here. And that's what President Bush has done.

If you look at Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld and Condey Rice, and George Tenant and all the rest who were there on the national security front, it's a first rate team. I would argue, some might disagree - I think this is the best team in national security we have seen in Washington since Harry Truman.

Now, to be sure, President Eisenhower had a fine team, but this team is really first, first rate. I have to tell you that the domestic team is not as stellar as the foreign policy team, and I think we've seen some of the results of that. The foreign policy team for this are, for this purpose, is first rate. Make decisions and take risks. Does anybody doubt that that's exactly what this president is doing? He's taking a lot of risks. We face a lot of risks here. We're going to win the war in Afghanistan. We've had some snags here in the last couple of weeks, it's been harder than it looked, the Taliban has been tougher than people first thought even in the pentagon, but we're gong to win in Afghanistan.

The issue is gong to become - the real risks come down the road, Phases II, III, and IV, because no one knows quite where we go to get the rest of these terrorism networks successfully. We need to go into some other countries. Some of those countries are Arab and the coalition is going to fall apart, and that's when it's going to get much, much tougher, because we're going to be facing opposition there. Opposition in Europe is already starting to take life. the support for the war is already starting to decline some. It's down 12 percent in Britain. You can see it in Germany, it's beginning to come up, and most importantly, in the long run the real challenge here is the battle for the hearts and minds of other peoples, especially in the Muslim world. And at the moment while we are winning in Afghanistan we are losing the battle for the hearts and minds, and this is the large, large challenge we face.

There was a clip that's here in one of your local newspapers, it says, "We are failing in getting our message out," and that's exactly right.

We need to work on that. But to the President's credit, he's willing to make those decisions and take those risks, and that's what leadership is about. It's going to be a tough road.

Five, admit mistakes and apologize when necessary. They need to do that. They need to do that on the domestic front more, because they have made some mistakes. They've made some mistakes on anthrax and trying to deal with this, and frankly, we've all made mistakes we ought to be willing to recognize in how we have under funded the public health services in this country. We used to have the finest public health services in the world, and we could deal with every epidemic, as we did successfully, and we attacked and people all the world looked at us. In the last 20 years we have defunded a lot of these public health services and we're paying a price for it. I'm going to finish in a moment.

Six, be trustworthy and care about others. It is good to have in the White House someone everybody trusts. We may not think he's the smartest fellow we've ever had in the White House, but we trust him. so far he has been a man of his word, and that has helped his leadership a great deal. Character matters on leadership. It matters as much as brain power.

Seven, never give up. I think the determination - we're still in the early stages, four weeks into the bombing, but if there is anything I think we see in this president, is that he is going to stick with this almost to the point of obsession. He is not going to give up. If anything, I would like to see him pay attention to some other issues that face the country. With a little more time, take a little time to do that, but when he said in front of the Congress, "We have found our moment, we have found our mission," the subtext of that statement was, "I have found my moment, I have found my mission, and this is what my presidency is all about." And he's going to define himself, for better or for worse, and in many ways it's for better, he has defined himself by he's going to stick with this throughout his term and possibly two terms, if that is what we have.

And finally, have a sense of humor. Well, he has a sense of humor, big time, Mr. Cheney would say. He seems to - it doesn't come out as much these days as it did. He still likes to kid around and have fun with people. And one of the things I think is good about him is that he's remembering who his friends are. He remembers where he came from, and on weekends he invites his friends in from the old days and they spend time together, and they laugh and they cut up a little bit. He's had a lot of sense of humor in the past and I think it's still there.

So if you look at the eight characteristics of excellent leadership I think that Bush has done pretty well. Now, we have a long way to go, and I want to finish on this note. We are not there yet. This is the early part of the journey. This wagon train has not yet gotten over the Appalachians. We have a long, long journey together. But if we remember who we are, if we remember the nature of what America is all about, if we honor our public servants, and if we draw upon not only the president, but all of you for leadership to get through these times, we'll make it out over the plains, up over the Rockies, and get to California and then we can go to the beach again. Thanks very much.