February 23, 2002
THE DEATH OF A GREAT LEADER
America lost a giant last weekend when John
Gardner died at the age of 89.
I first met him as a TIME correspondent in
1964 when he was saluted by President Johnson as the creator of the
White House Fellows program that brought fresh talent to serve as
interns to the President and Cabinet Members. Among them: a young Colin
Powell and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
President Johnson later named Gardner to run
the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), which had the
huge task to implement 136 major laws such as Medicare and new federal
aid to education programs. The President thought of moving Defense
Secretary Robert McNamara to manage HEW, but Johnson then thought of
Gardner "who would do it as mother would do," the President told me in
an interview for a TIME cover story on Gardner.
"He has dreams. He can take you up on the
mountain and show you the promised land," Johnson said. "And what's
more, he can lead you there."
That's not how Southern governors thought of
him. Gardner withheld federal aid from southern states refusing to
desegregate their schools. "For this nation, justice for the Negro is
the social problem," he said. It took a decade to get 2.5 percent
of blacks in the Deep South into previously all-white schools. With
HEW's prodding, 12.5 percent made it in two years.
Dozens of cities erupted in riots in the
summer of 1967. With Gardner's aid behind-the-scenes, an Urban Coalition
formed of top mayors, business, labor, religious and civil rights
leaders. They declared, that the "deep-rooted problems of the cities"
required the nation to "reorder national priorities, with a commitment
of resources equal to the magnitude of the problem."
It was a subtle call for President Johnson to
end the Vietnam War and shift spending priorities to inequalities of
race and class. Johnson ignored the call and escalated the number of
troops in Vietnam. Gardner quietly resigned his Cabinet post to lead the
Urban Coalition. He asked TIME to loan me to help him get started, which
I gladly did.
However, my first day on the job was April 4,
1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, sparking riots in 100
cities including Washington. Gardner urged communities to form local
Urban Coalitions to "bring together leadership elements that do not
normally collaborate in the solution of public problems." Within months
there were 33 of them.
An extremely contentious time in American
life, any leaders who began to address urban problems, were screamed at
by angry blacks. The natural reaction was to withdraw. Gardner was
always encouraging: "We are not at our best perched at the summit; we
are climbers, at our best when the way is steep."
When Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated, New
York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller offered his Senate seat to Gardner, but he
declined personal political office.
Instead, he took on the more ambitious task to
reform the political parties! Describing them, he told a reporter, "I
think of people sitting in an ancient automobile by the side of the
road. The tires are flat and drive shaft is bent, but they're engaged in
a great argument as to whether they should go to Phoenix or San
His answer was to create Common Cause to lobby
for campaign finance reform, civil rights and higher ethical standards
for public officials. "Everyone is organized but the people," announced
a series of full-page ads run in America's newspapers. By 1974, Common
Cause attracted 320,000 members and a $5 million budget.
After Common Cause opposed funds for the war
in Vietnam, Gardner, a Republican, lost a number of longtime friends..
"When Common Cause had to decide in 1972 whether to sue President
Nixon's reelection committee for campaign violations, something unheard
of at the time, he made the decision without a moment's hesitation,"
recalls Fred Wertheimer, a former Common Cause president. He was unfazed
when Nixon tried to get the IRS to revoke his new group's tax status.
After Watergate, Gardner won a round of
campaign finance reform, with public funds to elect the President.
Corporations found new paths of influence with "soft money"
contributions corrupting government. Fittingly, Congress passed another
round of campaign finance reform three days before Gardner's death.
At age 78 he wrote a magnificent book, "On
Leadership" in which he argued that leaders "must move the rest of us
toward commitment." John Gardner did that to the very end, sending me an
encouraging note last fall. I never knew a wiser or more inspiring man.
Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.