David Gergen is the only person to work for four American presidents as a senior advisor (Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton). But it was his first stint as a White House advisor that taught him lifelong lessons.
At 28, Gergen became a speechwriter during Richard Nixon’s first term. He rose to head of speechwriting and research after Nixon’s re-election in 1972.
As Watergate began to emerge in 1973, Gergen did not buy into the scandal. Nixon’s closest aides (and Nixon himself) reassured Gergen of the president’s innocence—and Gergen believed them.
But within months, some of Gergen’s staffers quit along with other White House officials. Nevertheless, Gergen stayed put.
“My resignation would have made a public statement about my lack of belief in President Nixon’s integrity,” he says. “So I stayed and kept hoping against hope he was innocent.”
Two days before the public heard the news in August 1974, Gergen’s hope ran out. Learning of Nixon’s guilt, he still couldn’t quit because he didn’t want to look like “a rat leaving the sinking ship.”
After Watergate, Gergen assumed he’d never get another White House job. His phone stopped ringing and only his closest friends stayed in touch.
Gergen vowed that if he ever got another chance, he would speak up more assertively. He would never again fall victim to blind loyalty.
“Since that searing experience with Watergate, I have always favored transparency,” he says. “I have frequently disagreed with those I worked for, because the Watergate lessons were so vivid in my mind.”
—Adapted from Discover Your True North, Bill George, John Wiley & Sons.