Where Did David Gergen Go Wrong?

DAVID GERGEN WAS HIRED LAST SPRING to help Bill Clinton overcome the growing public impression that he was a humbler. There was the controversy over gays in the military, the failed appointments and the infamous runway haircut. Gergen, a veteran of three GOP administrations and the architect of Ronald Reagan's media image, promised to improve relations with the press and to add luster to the public view of the president. But as the Clintons became mired in Whitewater and vulnerable to attacks on health-care reform, Gergen mysteriously disappeared from view. Regarded with suspicion by Clinton loyalists, he was squeezed out of the high command on both issues. He became such a marginal figure that one White House aide suggested stashing the garbage bags of subpoenaed Whitewater material in his office. He finally reemerged last week to defend the Clintons on "Nightline." His performance won him a hug from Hillary and a standing ovation at a staff meeting. But Hillary is one of the reasons Gergen has failed to thrive. An incrementalist in all things, he counseled compromise on health-care reform to attract GOP support, and stayed close to Rep. Jim Cooper, sponsor of a rival plan.. As a Watergate survivor wary of drip-drip disclosure, Gergen urged in January that the Whitewater documents be made public. The president seemed to agree, but Mrs. Clinton objected, and she prevailed.

Gergen's rehabilitation on "Nightline" wasn't exactly a triumph from his perspective. He has come to dislike his image as spin doctor. In an October New York Times Magazine story, he talked about his "guilt" over helping to turn politics into a public-relations game and how he hoped to change that in the Clinton White House. But the author, Michael Kelly, questioned whether Gergen's mea culpa was just another form of spin. Gergen was devastated by the portrait of himself and he became even more determined to become a substantive player. "He wants to be Jim Baker," says a colleague. Baker, after all, rose from a White House staff position to become secretary of state.

It was impossible. Gergen wasn't taken seriously as a policymakers Aides snicker over how hard he fought to be listed as a member of the official delegation-not a communications adviser-on the president's recent trip to Europe. After the Somalia debacle, Gergen, at the president's urging, sought a larger role in foreign affairs. National-security adviser Anthony Lake resisted, believing another voice would diminish his own; Gergen backed off. Lake jokingly rubbed his sweater sleeve against Gergen's arm last week and declared, "This is the only friction between us."

There was some tension after the arrival in December of New York lawyer Harold Ickes, a liberal Hillary ally. He and Gergen circled each other warily for weeks before they reached what Gergen calls "a level of understanding and collegiality." But younger White House aides see Gergen's journey of renewal as narcissistic "Davidism" and his West Wing office as a short stop on the way to a big job. Gergen says he'll stay through this year's legislative season and then reassess. He adds, partly in jest, "The best thing for me psychologically and physically would be to find a university with a good gym."

When Whitewater boiled over last week, Gergen volunteered for TV duty. His ability to offer reassurance about the Clintons reminded everyone-including himself-why he was there.