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Former White House Adviser David Gergen Talks Politics at UC Santa Barbara

The Harvard professor and cable news political analyst discusses the 2016 election, how the country's political climate has changed and what it means for the future

Former White House adviser and political analyst David Gergen visited UCSB for an Arts & Lectures talk on the 2016 election. Click to view larger
Former White House adviser and political analyst David Gergen visited UCSB for an Arts & Lectures talk on the 2016 election.  (Contributed photo)

President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, wasn’t sure why his boss demanded that he quickly acquire 1,000 Cuban cigars for him.

But as soon as they arrived, David Gergen explained, “President Kennedy went on national television to declare a trade embargo with Cuba.”

In a lecture Thursday night titled, “The 2016 Election and the Future Political Landscape,” Gergen, who was an advisor in four presidential administrations and is currently a co-director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, peppered the audience with humorous anecdotes from 20th-century administrations.

In the Nixon White House, Gergen served as director of speechwriting, and later became director of communications under both Ford and Reagan. He was counselor to the president in the Clinton administration, editor at U.S. News & World Report and is currently a political analyst for CNN.

Speaking at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall as part of the university’s Arts & Lectures program, Gergen explored the 2016 presidential election, the socioeconomic trends he believes are behind the populist movements shaping its trajectory, and the future political climate.

Gergen compared today’s climate versus that of previous decades to a football field.

“We used to play our politics between the 40-yard lines. We used to have a sort of mainstream place where we’d come together and got it done. And now, we’re down here near the end zones on both sides,” he said.

In the decades after World War II, he explained, the prosperity of the white middle class began to crumble while the increasingly wealthy upper classes became more and more alienated from them.

The country ignoring this demographic’s increasing hardships exacerbated the problem, he said, and helped give rise to the populist movements that are buoying the candidacies of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and business mogul Donald Trump.

“What they increasingly see is that the Republican establishment is tilting the system toward the rich,” he said. “And they see the establishment on the left tilting the system toward minorities and the poor.”

Despite the Republican Party front-runner’s formidable following, Gergen said that Trump’s rhetoric was far too repellant to large swathes of the electorate for him to win the party nomination, let alone the White House — believing instead that Texas Senator Ted Cruz would take the nominating contest to the party’s convention and rack up the requisite number of delegates there.

On the Democratic side, Gergen put his money on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he disagreed with “on about six out of every four issues” during her husband’s administration.

She would, however, bring “more experience than anybody else has brought to the presidency in a long time.”

With the demographic makeup of the electorate increasingly favoring the Democratic Party, he wagered that Clinton stands the best chance of being the next president.

She would likely be further bolstered, Gergen said, by the “blue wall” — 18 states that the party has won in each of the last six election cycles that provide 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

“I do not write off the country,” he told the audience in spite of all the rancor he sees permeating today’s politics. “We’re going through a rough patch. We’ve been here before.

“We’ve had populist revolts. And what did it lead to? It led to the progressive movement … And we got ourselves into a much better place because we were a resilient country.”

During a Q&A session, Gergen expressed his dismay at the amount of money in politics and how it alienated voters.

“That’s one of the reasons why the Supreme Court matters in the next presidency,” he said.

“The winner of the White House is probably going to win the Senate as well, maybe the House, but also the Supreme Court. So all three branches are up for grabs in this election.”

Throughout his talk, Gergen’s nostalgia for what he called the “World War II generation” wove in and out of his anecdotes, arguments, and explanations.

The political leaders who came of age serving in the war, he said, had an unparalleled commitment to serving the country and an unwavering belief in its potential.

But he also sees reflections of their standards in those coming of age today.

“The millennial generation, and many of their older brothers and sisters, is one of the most promising generations,” he said, citing a powerful desire he’s seen in the cohort to reform the country.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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