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February 23, 2002
Column #1069

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 Francisco."

     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.

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