David Gergen, Wednesday’s morning lecturer, told a short story about Benjamin Franklin to illustrate his point that it’s up to Americans to decide the future.
As Franklin was leaving Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a woman approached him. She pointed to a chair, which was painted with a half-sun on the horizon.
“Is that a rising or a setting sun?” she asked.
“Madam, that will be up to all of us,” Franklin said.
Gergen presented his speech at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater. He was the third speaker in Week Two’s topic on “Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good.”
Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership and professor at Harvard Kennedy School, has served as a political consultant and presidential adviser to four U.S. presidents. He also is editor-at-large for U.S. News and World Report and a senior political analyst for CNN.
‘The greatest generation’
Throughout his speech, Gergen made references to the “World War II generation,” which he said should be a model for the most recent generation if it hopes to keep America at the round table for worldwide politics.
“As a society of only three million people fighting for independence on these shores,” Gergen said of Revolutionary War-era America, “we produced six world-class leaders: Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison. Today, with over 300 million people, we struggle to find and to create world-class leaders.”
He made similar references to John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Joshua Chamberlain, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In addition, he mentioned the seven “World War II presidents”: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
“Seven presidents in a row who drank from that cup,” Gergen said, “and learned to sacrifice (and to work for the common good) when they were young. And as a result of that, (they) came back when they were older and continued to work for the common good.”
When he arrived in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, he found people who were strong Democrats and strong Republicans. However, Gergen said all those people were strong Americans first. They were working together to arrive at a future that benefited everybody, he said.
‘Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’
Gergen said the generation of people who were born in, rather than raised in, the midst of World War II — his own generation — was the beginning of the demise of American power.
Though that generation brought about the civil rights movement, women’s movement and the beginning of the green and consumer movements, he said the generation was also split in half by those very same movements.
He made a distinction between the majority of that generation and those who attended universities like Yale, Harvard, Stanford or Northwestern.
“One group of people came out with the old-fashioned traditional values,” Gergen said. “The rest of us came out with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
He said the gap between those groups has never healed; there’s still political “polarization” and “paralysis” in that generation. Results of this gap, he said, are things like America’s economic and political decline, rising levels of mediocrity and sinking graduation rates.
He said he hopes the generation will “grow up,” but that good news lies in the newest generation.
‘The next greatest generation’
Gergen said the newest generation should emulate their grandparents’ generation — the World War II generation.
“These millennials, people in college and a little older than that, aren’t perfect,” Gergen said. “Too many of them, as my son Christopher points out, have a sense of entitlement. There are a lot of (millennials) out there who are slackers: They spend too much time on Facebook and on the iPod and not enough time getting ready for the future. But there’s a growing core at the center of this generation that is terrific.”
He said he’s seen two main groups of students in his classrooms that “knock his socks off.” First are the social entrepreneurs; young people who apply entrepreneurial principles to effect social change. Second are the young soldiers returning from overseas. These veterans, he said, have realized their patriotism and want to make a country in which they are proud to live.
Millennials, he said, have the potential to bring the U.S. back to the way it used to be.
“Now, in another time of peril for our country,” Gergen said, “we need more men and women to step forward, ready to take responsibility, ready to lead in difficult, changing times.”
David Gergen is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. In addition, he serves as a senior political analyst for CNN and contributes to Parade Magazine. In the past, he has served as a White House adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton. He wrote about those experiences in his New York Times best-seller, Eyewitness to Power. In the 1980s, he also served as chief editor of US News & World Report. He serves on many boards, including Teach for America, City Year, the Schwab Foundation, and the Aspen Institute, and is chair of the advisory board for Elon University School of Law. He is a member of the District of Columbia Bar, a veteran of the US Navy, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the US executive committee for the Trilateral Commission.
Christopher Gergen is a founding partner of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development company, and co-author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Additionally, Christopher is a visiting lecturer and Director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative at Duke University within the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy's Hart Leadership Program.
Christopher is the co-founder and chairman of SMARTHINKING, the leading online tutoring provider in the United States -- serving over 200,000 students from more than 1,000 universities, colleges, and high schools. Other entrepreneurial ventures include starting a coffeehouse/bar dedicated to promoting the arts and music in Santiago, Chile and helping to launch the "Entrepreneur Corps" -- a national service initiative sponsored by AmeriCorps*VISTA that placed 400 full-time business volunteers for a year of service in over 90 non-profit organizations across the country. Previously, Christopher started LEAD!, a non-profit leadership, entrepreneurship, and service program for Gonzaga College high school students in Washington, D.C. and is a founding board member of the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School also in D.C.
Further professional experience includes serving as Vice President of New Market Development for K12 Inc. and Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Business Development and Strategy for New American Schools. Christopher received a Bachelor of Arts with honors from Duke University, a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the George Washington University, and his M.B.A. from Georgetown University. He lives with his wife and two children in Washington, D.C.