John Gardner was never directly connected with the Peace Corps. He was never on Peace Corps Staff. But he was part of that cadre of thinkers and doers of the early 1960's who made a difference in the world that we know today.
He exemplified service - as Chariman of the Civic League, as President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, as President Johnson's Director of HEW, and finally as founder of Common Cause, which for 30 years championed campaign finance reform. He also chaired the organizing committee that led to the founding of Independent Sector, a national forum for voluntary-sector organization.
Throughout his life he stood for the ideas of service, involved citizenship, optimism and integrity - the same qualities that we hope the Peace Corps stands for.
Read and comment on this remembrance of John Gardner that appeared in Newsweek at:
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Remembering an erudite, passionate reformer who left his mark on America
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Feb. 20 — John Gardner died the other day. If you’re like most people, you probably skipped the obituary; he’s not exactly a household name. But Gardner was one of the most important and accomplished public men this country has produced in the last 50 years. When I heard last summer that he was dying of prostate cancer, I called him up. What he told me should resonate beyond the grave.
GARDNER IS BEST KNOWN for founding Common Cause, the grassroots public interest lobby that got the ball rolling on campaign finance reform, which cleared the House of Representatives just two days before Gardner died. Over the years, Common Cause has pushed for public access to closed-door government meetings (it was once routine to keep citizens in the dark), obtained disclosure of gifts and other favors for lawmakers, hastened the demise of the undemocratic seniority system in Congress, championed accountability in state and local government and driven the agenda on just about every other reform initiative of the last three decades. If you want to know where editorial pages get their ideas on reform, look to Common Cause.
A GREAT SOCIETY
But that’s only a portion of Gardner’s contribution. As secretary of the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, he designed much of LBJ’s Great Society domestic program. Nowadays, that’s seen as a not entirely great legacy, and Gardner admitted its shortcomings. But if you think the United States is better off for having programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and help for the handicapped, you owe Gardner your thanks.
And there’s more. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Gardner ran the Carnegie Corporation, where he helped generate the boom in higher education that has powered so much of the postwar American economic miracle. Everything from the back-to-basics movement to the new math (not one of his better ideas) to the establishment of university research centers studying other parts of the world bear Gardner’s fingerprints.
He was also a college teacher, an intelligence officer with the OSS in World War II, a best-selling author and a pioneer in using the non-profit world to advance social change. On top of that, he was a thoroughly decent person. Not bad for one American life.
AN IMPULSE FOR REFORM
I asked Gardner in August about the impulse for reform in American history, and when it breaks through:
“The main driving element in the 1960s was Lyndon Johnson. He not only believed very strongly in it, he was the master of making the system work. Our system tends to grind to a halt between crises, and it takes an enormous shove to move it. Johnson, whatever you thought of him [and Gardner was uncomfortable with Johnson’s Vietnam War policy], had the capacity for that enormous shove.”
But Gardner was no apologist for the 1960s. He described what he called “an 11-year national breakdown from the JFK assassination [in 1963] to Nixon getting on the helicopter after resigning [in 1974].” This mood of instability, worsened by the Vietnam War, had the effect of halting reform. And there was a natural process at work: “Any dynamic movement tends to overreach. You can’t get a dynamism that moves the system without breeding an optimism that isn’t always safe. Unfortunately, you can’t have a truly successful movement without a certain amount of overreaching.”
UNWISE ON WELFARE
The greatest failure was welfare: “We didn’t deal wisely with it. I don’t think we fully understood the capacity of those programs to cultivate dependence. In those days, we just didn’t think about it enough.”
The reform impulse revived with President Clinton. Gardner said Clinton “was not that interested in campaign finance reform,” but he completed an important historical mission nonetheless: “We’ve had this swing from right to left and back again, and he really figured out how to stabilize that, and move the Democratic Party back to the center.”
Gardner, a man of grace and lightly worn erudition, was far from one of those crotchety old-timers who complain that everything is going to hell. But he did think that “education is going downhill” and the increasing “disconnection of citizens from their own society” is a serious threat. On the plus side is the “absolutely extraordinary developments in molecular biology.”
A TOUGH FUTURE
When I asked about the world’s biggest problems, Gardner replied: “The two overriding threats are deadly conflict and the environment. Our species has an awesome capacity to be at each other’s throats. We have to put more thought into conflict resolution. And we can’t continue with these high levels of consumption and disregard for natural resources. [On global warming], The day of accounting is coming — not in your lifetime or mine. But when it comes, its going to be very, very tough.”
A month before Sept. 11, Gardner offered this final, extraordinarily relevant point:
“There’s no question that a big crisis pulls the country together. But that fades. The challenge is: How do you get to a livable level — and achieve a sense of purpose —without another?”
I have one further question: How will we confront the complexities of the future unless we produce more true citizens like John Gardner?
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