There are too few statesmen today, but David Gergen qualifies as one. This North Carolina native’s bona fides include service as a high-level advisor in the administrations of four presidents, as co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School and as a senior political analyst for CNN. Having been on the national stage for many decades, he has experience and perspective few can match.
Gergen’s commencement address at Elon University last week didn’t spout traditional platitudes or words of advice. Instead he challenged the graduates – and all of us – to reflect on where we are as a state and to use our talents, our energies and our leadership to move us to a higher ground.
“Enough is enough,” he proclaimed, saying that forces of political extremism have asserted themselves here and represent a sharp break from our past. Gergen, now 74, remembers growing up in Durham. “When I was young, this state was dirt poor. Our people earned on average about 71 cents to every dollar earned by other Americans. Our cities were small and insular; our rural areas were dotted with shacks. Our biggest industries, tobacco, textiles and furniture, were starting to die. And the traditions of Jim Crow hung heavily in the air, dividing whites from blacks. For years, the North Carolina Ku Klux Clan was one of the most powerful in the country.” We slowly began to change under governors Terry Sanford, Jim Holshouser, Jim Hunt and Jim Martin, along with leadership from others like “Skipper” Bowles and Bill Friday.
“These past few years have been especially tough on working people here,” said Gergen. “But we are still much better off than we once were. Best of all, we are learning to live together as one people – black or white; male, female, or transgender: our children barely see the differences anymore.
“That’s why so many native North Carolinians have proclaimed that we are proud to be from here and others have been proud to bring their families and businesses… Then suddenly, without warning, dark clouds arrived. The moderation that characterized our state — the belief among Republicans and Democrats that we are all in this together — gave way to a new, angrier, extremist politics,” Gergen added.
Those elected got to office “fair and square” he said, chosen by the voters to serve, adding he was sure they meant well. “But the signals coming out of the State Capitol in Raleigh have sent a thunderous message rolling out across America: that North Carolina is no longer a pioneer in advancing people of color, people who are gay, people living on the margins. Instead, many here want to go back, far back to a darker time.”
Gergen said that recent actions like HB2, violate two cardinal rules of politics: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and leave as much power as you can in the hands of local people.
David Gergen urged the graduates to “take North Carolina back,” concluding by pleading with them to get off the sidelines, come off the bench and get into the arena. “You will find that many will disagree with you, just as many here will have disagreed with me. But don’t let your disagreements make them your enemies. Find common ground, work hard to respect the views of others. You will get knocked down and there will be severe disappointments. Embrace the fact that change is hard.
“But know this: if you pour your heart and soul into rebuilding a better state and nation, you will look back one day and find an inner satisfaction, a pride that you answered the call to service and leadership.”
Words worth hearing. Words worth heeding. Words worth sharing. Thank you, David Gergen.
Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of N.C. Spin.