Editor’s Note: Watch the full conversation with SE Cupp and her panel of experts on “What Comes Next?” here. David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents of both parties and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-founded its Center for Public Leadership. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
This week, we ask the question: What comes next for America and the presidency? President Donald Trump upended countless longstanding norms when he took office, prompting Americans, foreign allies and enemies alike to wonder, what does the office of the presidency really stand for? In our CNN Digital video conversation, we’ll discuss whether the American presidency has been transformed and redefined forever, but first we start with a prescription for its restoration, in a piece by David Gergen.
One night after moving into a brand new White House in November 1800, then-President John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail and included a short prayer: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”
Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt loved the prayer so much that in 1945 he had it engraved in the mantel above a stone fireplace in the State Dining Room. The Kennedys were so enamored that they had it carved into a new marble mantel in the early 1960s. In her memoir, Hillary Clinton expressed her hope that the prayer be extended to women of good character, too.
These sentiments about honor and wisdom, shared for over two centuries by our best presidents, are now at the center of this year’s presidential contest. We are in the midst of a political crisis, searching for leaders we can trust. There was a time in the mid-20th century when we took for granted that our presidents would be and would command respect. No longer.
When I was a youngster, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. During his first campaign, voters overwhelmingly believed him both trustworthy and likable. One of his top advisers capitalized on these findings and created the campaign slogan, “I like Ike.” That slogan quickly became one of the most popular in political history. And Eisenhower went on to serve two terms in the White House, enjoying, according to Gallup, an average approval rating of 65% – an astonishing number by today’s standards.
The years that followed, though, brought a cascade of lies from Washington, as we suffered through the Vietnam War and Watergate era. Within a decade, faith in the federal government as a whole dropped 41 points.
While those numbers recovered somewhat from that low point in the 1970s, they have never fully rebounded. Faith in elected leaders rose to 55% in 2002, but by 2015 – just before Trump took office – it had dropped again, this time to only 19% of Americans saying they trusted the federal government all or most of the time.
Trump’s presidency, of course, deepened that lost trust. Where Eisenhower was mortified when the Soviets caught him in a single lie regarding the use of American U-2 spy planes during the Cold War, Trump seems indifferent to the Washington Post cataloging his over 20,000 false or misleading statements.
And a recent Pew poll measuring international sentiments across 13 countries found that the international community was more trusting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping than of Trump.
These things matter. A president cannot get big things done here at home unless he can marshal the support of a sizable majority of the people. Sure, recent presidents have exercised power more frequently through executive orders, but those aren’t lasting in their impact: The next president can easily reverse them, as Trump has demonstrated. Nor can a president easily persuade other advanced nations to embrace controversial policies unless they believe he is a reliable friend.
Indeed, I believe that the restoration of trust should be the single highest priority of our next president. Everything else will flow from there.
Yes, it seems impossible to imagine such a reality if Trump is re-elected, particularly since he is the least honest president in recent memory. But here are three suggestions for a potential Joe Biden administration – and let’s hope against hope that the Republican Party at large is also listening:
First, our next president should set a new tone in the White House on day one, proclaiming that honesty, dignity and respect for others will be the new marching orders. In the aftermath of Watergate, when former President Richard Nixon was forced out in disgrace, I saw his successor – Gerald Ford – change the atmosphere within hours. Ford proclaimed “that truth is the glue” that holds us all together. He believed it and soon his followers did, too.
Later on, I learned that in Nixon’s final days, the Democrats’ two leaders on Capitol Hill, Carl Albert and Mike Mansfield, had been highly influential in persuading Nixon to appoint Ford to a vice presidential vacancy. Why? Because he was a man they could trust.
Second, our next president needs every department to review and refresh its ethics codes and then require every new political appointee to attend no-nonsense briefings on what is in bounds and what is out of bounds. I can’t remember any ethics briefing when I joined the Nixon White House, but I can well remember a tough – and eye-opening – briefing when I arrived at President Clinton’s State Department. Warren Christopher was the secretary of state, and he was a stickler for honesty and openness.
Ethics officers have the ability to keep government officials out of trouble. Coming into one administration, for example, I learned that if, as a private citizen, I had accepted the occasional offer of a friend to use his private driver to carry me across town, I would have to declare those rides as taxable income. That may sound trivial, but, trust me, it was not.
Third, our next president needs to review and overhaul those who now serve as inspectors general across the federal landscape. For decades, IGs have played the essential role of providing nonpartisan oversight of the federal government. But so many IGs have come and gone in the Trump years that few can tell which federal officials are completely honest and who might be covering for the White House’s indiscretions.
The Offices of Inspectors General need a thorough scrubbing and perhaps a fresh start, with new appointees who are, as the old saying goes, cleaner than a hound’s teeth.
In writing his magisterial biography of Harry Truman, historian David McCullough concluded that character is the single most important quality a president must have. I have learned over time that McCullough was right.
Young men and women on a White House staff and working in government departments and agencies take their cues from their boss, the president. If he or she is open and honest, that is the path they will walk; but if he or she acts more like a mobster, bullying and lying to those in his midst, some of them will eventually copy this behavior.
So, the question before us is simple: Will the wise and the honest prevail over the next four years? The answer really rests with you, the voters. You are the ultimate stewards of our democracy.