Gergen: Millennials should learn from the World War II generation


David Gergen delivers his lecture, “Leadership and Politics in a Changing America,” Wednesday morning in the Amphitheater. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

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 for 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 roundtable 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 come to 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.”

Q: How do we prepare future generations to serve and lead without war?

A: First of all, that’s a very good question. But clearly, my argument in part is that we’ve had these wars now that have dragged on for 10 years. And they’ve cost us a pile of money. And they were much more expensive, and we shed much more blood than we ever should have, and one war in particular, the Iraq War, seemed to be particularly misguided in the way we executed it. I think we can all agree on that. But one of the silver linings — and we should not forget this — one of the silver linings is that it has molded and shaped the character and spirit of a lot of young men and women who’ve served, and that is a blessing for the country. So there are a lot of negative things about this, but we need to honor and respect and appreciate how much they can now do for us as they come back. Having now said that, how do we go forward? I think the president is on the right track and trying to wind these wars down as quickly as possible. We’re going to probably have to leave some kind of footprint there. There’s some talk about leaving 10,000 in Iraq before it’s over. We may have to leave something in Afghanistan. That’s partly insurance against losing all that our young men and women have fought for and we’ve spent so much money for. So I think we ought to be respectful of the hard choices that this president and his team are going to have to make here in the next couple of years about the remaining footprint. Going on, what I think is so important is to create a culture here of service in the younger generation. And this is something that’s been — I think people of goodwill on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Robert Coles can call for national service — I happen to believe in national service — but so did Bill Buckley. He wrote a book about service and how important it was. And that is not to say that they all need to go work for the Federal Government. They do not. In fact, what we really ought to do is have a lot of people out working in nonprofit organization. And I don’t believe in mandatory service. What I do believe in is the culture in which young people, when they hit the age of 40 or 50 years old, can look at each other and say, “What did you do in your year of service to the country? How did you spend your time?” And I think that’s time that could be spent often between high school and college, to really get you ready. And by the way, the theory would be, go spend one year in service as a follower, and if you’re willing, sign up for a second year and we’ll make you a leader, just as they do in the military. You’ll have a chance to learn how to follow but then learn how to lead if you want to give that second year. And we want to encourage that. But then that service ought to be honored, not only by colleges, but by graduate schools, so that business schools would look and say, “You spent two years in a classroom, and this other person spent two years at McKinsey, we’re not going to give the benefit of the doubt to McKinsey. You’re going to compete on equal playing fields.” So that we don’t have all these incentives to go off and do the financial services with a lot of our bright young people, that in fact that there is some incentive built in. And my own belief is that if people serve early, if they begin to realize there is something bigger than themselves that they need to care about,  that they begin to appreciate just how hard social change is — and it’s very hard — and they begin to understand what it’s like to live on very little. We have so many people now who are hurting in this country, and yet we have others of us who are living, in effect, in gated communities, and we don’t want to know each other. We don’t know what it’s like to be lower middle class without a job. We don’t understand how it demoralizes a male who can’t find a job year after year or whose income never goes up. The average salary for men in this country, measured in real terms, is no higher today than it was in 1975. That’s for the average. That’s tough. That’s really tough. The great American job machine has slowed down. We were creating 20 million jobs in the 1980s, and we created another 20 million jobs in the 1990s. In the last decade, you know how many net new jobs we’ve created? Zero. In the last three years, we haven’t created any net new full-time jobs. All the jobs we’ve created, despite 15 months of growing employment — all the net new jobs are part time. Mort Zuckerman had a piece the other day: part-time, average pay is $19,000 per year. People can’t live on that. And we need our sons and daughters who are coming to places like Chautauqua — where it’s so idyllic, and we all love it here — to have a chance to be and work with and understand not just what it’s like to be poor, but the beauty and the souls of many people who are poor, who need to be unleashed, who need to have a shot in life, who need to have an equal opportunity. And service will do that. One of the great things about World War II, it was said, was that a Saltonstall from Massachusetts had to salute a Polish kid from Brooklyn. And it was healthy for both. And service will help get us back to that playing field. When Franklin Roosevelt created the CCC and put 250,000 young men out in the woods, which was a wonderful organization, it really democratized them. They felt that they all belonged to the same country. And now increasingly, we don’t feel we belong to the same country, and service will help to get us back there, and it will be in the blood, and people will get committed. Yes, they may believe the way you get there is through conservative principles, and they may believe you get there through liberal principles, but most of all, they care about getting there. And that’s the culture of service I’d like to see.

Q: Would you comment on whether or not we really should believe that the concept of the common good still exists today?

A: Does the concept of the common good still exist? It does, but it’s not essential to the conversation as it once was. I there are those out there, like those of you who come to a place like Chautauqua, who need to carry on those traditions, to make sure that flame doesn’t go out, because it is not as widely discussed today. Howard Gardner, another Harvard type, he knows the difference between a sheep and a dog. Howard Gardner, who is at the School of Education at Harvard — a wonderful man — he’s been toying with this concept about ‘trustees of the country.’ We have trustees for corporations; we have trustees for universities; we have trustees for other non-profit organizations, and they’re really people who are stewards of the long-term future of that organization. They don’t do the day-to-day management; they’re supposed to be there to preserve the long term. And he argues increasingly that what we ought to be doing is looking to people to be ‘trustees of America,’ to think of themselves as that’s their role, that they have some responsibility, some stewardship — no matter what their personal belief may be, but you have some larger sense of responsibility. And John Gardner, one of my heroes, is the personification of a trustee for America. I think all of us out to see ourselves, to some degree, in that role. Just as you’re somehow a trustee of your kids, can you become a trustee for your community? For where you live? And for the nation? I think we can rebuild it as long as we remember who we are and retain a sense of heroes.

Q: Should our goal be to maintain our No. 1 status forever, or should we aim at exercising the sort of leadership that aims at helping the world transition to a new era in which we are content to be a leavening influence at the table?

A: It’s a good question. It’s a good question. I think the ‘rise of the rest’ is going to happen. China is coming to the table. India is going to be coming to the table. And we should welcome them to the table. We should not be afraid of having other nations at the table. And if anything, our responsibility is to make sure that, as China grows, we keep a decent working relationship so we don’t get in a fight. Historians tell you that one of the most dangerous times is when one nation is rising and another nation is declining. And there’s a resentment that builds up in the declining nation, and a sense of arrogance that can build up in the rising nation, and you can have a real fight on your hands. Think of the end of the 19th and early 20th century that we spoke about earlier. Britain became a declining nation, and Germany and the United States were the rising nations. Now in our case with the Brits, we got along very well — we didn’t have a war — but Germany and Britain got into it twice, and it’s in part because of this rising falling thing. We want very much to have China; it would be a good thing for us — the more China grows, the more they consume. That’s a bigger export market for us. It’s good for jobs here in this country. So we should not be afraid of China coming to the table. We shouldn’t be afraid of India coming to the table — Japan, whoever it may be — as long as we’re still at the table. What we don’t want to do is leave the table. What we don’t want to do is no longer be seen as an important influence for good, that people take us seriously. Because, believe me, if we slip and become a second-class power, we’re going to get shoved around in ways that we have no idea — we can’t predict, but I will guarantee you — anybody who knows anything about world realities and world history understands that when some nations get very big and there’s nobody out there to help keep the balance, it can get very, very tough for the other, smaller nations. We happen to have been — for the most part, not always — but we happen to have been, I think, a benevolent superpower. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, we’ve been too aggressive, we’ve tried to impose our way of life upon too many people. But by and large, if you look at international history, if you compare the United States’ record as a superpower versus others, our record is pretty darn good. And we should not apologize for that. We’ve helped the rule of law; we’ve helped to promote the rule of law; we’ve helped to promote the U.N.; we’ve helped to promote a lot of other organizations that have been very important. We’ve helped to create a world trading system that has allowed China and India and Brazil to grow as they should. We need to be very aware of that, but I’m just telling you, you let us slip into second-class status, and our children and our grandchildren are going to be in a world of hurt. They’re going to be in a world of hurt, and we’re going to get ordered around, and this will not be the same country, and we owe it to our children not to turn over a nation to them that is in decline. We owe it to them. That’s a moral responsibility on our part to turn over a nation as good as our parent left it to us. If we don’t do that, we will have failed.

Q: Please comment, if you would, on the future of balanced and fact-based journalism, and how can we be well informed in an age of ideological media.

A: Do we want to have lunch together or dinner? I know this is a question that is sensitive to a lot of you. It’s asked almost every year at Chautauqua, and frequently, about the media. I have certainly at least one leg in journalism, so I plead guilty to this. I’m as responsible as others. I do think that the modern media has contributed to the deterioration of discourse in this country. I’m old enough to know — I didn’t know Edward R. Murrow, but I’m old enough to know a lot of the Murrow boys — and to have worked with people like Jim Lehrer and Robin and Ted Koppel and Walter Cronkite, and you can go through the list, who believe very much in fact-based journalism and kept their opinions to themselves. They checked them at the door. To this day Jim Lehrer does not vote. I disagree with that, but he’s trying so hard to be non-partisan. And I admire that, and he upholds those old standards. And once again, it’s really important that there be a core of people who keep the flag, who maintain that flag and keep it up, long enough for us to get back to a better day. We’re going through a bad period in journalism. We’re going to get back to a better day one day, I think, I hope. The news organizations are businesses. They do have bottom lines, and ratings do matter. We’ve had a tendency to cater downmarket. We found we couldn’t make the profit levels that you needed upmarket. So what you find on an evening news broadcast on one of the over-the-air networks, which used to be — people like Cronkite fought to get that half hour — but now it’s about six or seven minutes of news, and another 16 minutes or so often go to froth. I think, frankly, as a nation, we’re too engaged in bread and circuses. We are. And of course, bread and circuses we associate with the decline of the Roman empire, as we should. Two other points ought to be made. If you’re going to have an education system that turns out people who don’t read, who are not interested in public affairs, if you’ve got politicians who drive people away from public affairs, as Christopher was just saying, young people don’t feel invited to the conversation; they feel irrelevant; they feel isolated. There’s a lot of evidence that people volunteer because they feel guilty, not because they feel like they’re involved. They don’t feel involved. If you’ve got politicians who chase them away and don’t make them feel involved, then it’s hard for anybody to build an audience of people who really want to pay attention and want to be informed of what’s happening in Sudan, or what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, or why women can’t drive in some of these countries, or what’s happening here in this country, what’s happening in Atlanta with this new case that’s just breaking of all the cheating that’s been going on in school tests. It’s a very upsetting story in the paper today about that. And we need people who are deeply engaged. What’s happening on these deficits? Pete Peterson has been trying very hard to get the younger generation involved, and what’s going to happen to them if we don’t cure these deficits? Because they’re going to pay the price. It’s hard to bring them in. Don’t just blame the media. We’re all in this together. We need to create a culture in which there are people who do care. In any society, there’s going to be a core of people who do care. People who come to Chautauqua generally care. Most of you are very well educated, and you can keep up. We need to build that core. We need to expand that core. We need to have people around us; we need to be in our communities building up people around us who care, and who do want to read and who do want to watch. And if you care, you can find it on the Net. If you want to be informed, you can inform yourself. There’s more than enough out there, and there are people who aggregate for you and will find articles that will present three different sides of the same question. So you can find it if you want; you just got to work at it. And it’s not necessarily going to be there when you click on the tube. You’ve got to work at it. You can be informed. You can read the Financial Times online. I think the Financial Times has become a required daily read. I don’t think you can understand the United States unless you read the Financial Times, frankly. Just as I think you need to look at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post if you can get it and look at some of these opinion pieces. But I think a well educated person today has to be reading more than just an American-written publication. You have to see us and the world through other eyes, not just our own eyes. There are multiple perspectives. We don’t have a monopoly on wisdom here in this country.

Transcribed by Josh Cooper

There are 3 comments

  1. Tracy L. Solomon

    So many good points made and at such an important time in our country. I think it would be a valuable asset to our youth and our general population to remember what has lead our country through its most difficult times and where we need to be focused. So often, we tend to drift our focus away from our values and only onto the here and now.

    One point made was in preparing our future generations to lead without war. I think something that has been less focused on in our society and is hurting our country now more than ever is the loss of reasoning and thinking. So much is done based on immediate reactions and so often decisions are made on short-term gratification instead of long-term goals. Both of those have lead our country into financial turmoil as well as wars that seem neither thought out but most seem incapable of planning a strategy to fix the problems they have caused. Why? Society wants things done now, not later. They want the comfort of relief without the necessary knowledge of how it was attained or whether or not it was done in the best interest of the overall situation for the long-term interest of our country at large.

    Today’s youth will be best served to become better thinkers, able to reason and think of society as a whole and not in the sense of divided parties, social groups or who has the most to gain or lose. America needs to be brought back together from the ground up and not by those who have been put into power but by those who are doing the voting.

    Another important topic you spoke on is whether not we really should believe in the common good of people.

    I agree with the question and can see why it was brought up due to the way things are covered in the media as well as how the economy and jobs have suffered so long in the U.S. It is not difficult to feel as though the “good” has been drained from our society.

    You brought up a good point when speaking about the above topic which I think can go here as well. That is in national service. However, it can be in any way of doing something for someone else. That seems to go against the idea of trying to find the common good but society looks much better when one is looking to help another. In times of difficulty or in times of need, it is easy to see the worse when looking around. The news is typically negative, people’s attitudes are typically drained and not ready for another day of adversity but when reaching out and doing something for someone else catches on (like what went on in situations like 9/11), a since of pride in one another or in one’s self is uplifting and enough to bring about not only your own feeling that you have more control over what is going on around you but also a sense from others that the possibility for improvement is more in our control than we sometimes give credit to.

    Lastly, as far as the U.S. being or feeling No. 1? I think as long as we maintain our since of diplomacy and humanitarian efforts around the world and within our own Nation, those efforts will pay off for themselves. However, when we try to shut off those efforts or hinder our own people from rights in our very own country, a democratic country, we are pulling ourselves out of a position we have fought very hard to maintain over the years. That is not what was intended by those who fought for our freedoms and gave their lives and we should do everything in our power to maintain those rights and freedoms for everyone and let the U.S. continue to stand for what this Nation has always stood for, freedom.

  2. Karen Lodge

    Mr. Gergen does need to remember that the baby boomer women were the ones who fought for equality in this country. Many good things came out of that generation. Even though many chose to “make love not war” but we certainly never felt entitled to the “good life” like our children’s generation.

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