A visit with Citizen John Gardner (Think Spring 1977)

John Gardner is one of Washington, D.C.’s most obsessed men. His obsession is the public good.

Last April 23, Gardner resigned as chief executive officer of Common Cause, the militant — and surprisingly effective — public interest lobby lie founded in 1970.

Gardner, now 64, has spent virtually his entire life devising new tactics and creating new strategies for revitalizing American society. He has done so as educator, pamphleteer foundation head, Cabinet member, freelance governmental reformer — and private citizen.

On a sunny March afternoon just prior to his resignation, I visited Gardner in his large, second-floor office at Common Cause, on the corner of 21st and M Streets, in downtown Washington.

The office had a cool, bureaucratic air. The white walls were spotless, except for a few mounted photos–including one of Gardner, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson visiting a Headstart project, and one by Ansel Adams of Yosemite National Park. A large beige telephone intercom sat in the middle of Gardner’s massive mahogany desk. Behind it loomed a dark mountain of books, every binding perfectly flush. The curtains were drawn. The room, like the man, seemed self-contained.

We began by discussing higher education, the field in which Gardner originally made his reputation. As president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning front 1955 to 1965, he had been one of the first to speak out against the increasing bigness of many colleges and universities, citing the “mass-productive” effects this inevitably produced.

How did he view the situation today? Weren’t many institutions still too big? He thought for a moment.

“Um–that’s a hard question,” he said. “I think that the early ’60s created a lot of turmoil at universities, and sonic of that turmoil was essentially anti-intellectual and offensive to me. But it did force to the surface certain issues that stemmed mainly from bigness — the processing of lots and lots of students. And these problems have cropped up in every country that has tried to make education mailable on a large scale.

“There are a lot of ways to cope with it,” Gardner said, warming to the subject. “It’s part of the larger problem of the largescale organization and its tendency to become impersonal. “Of course, there isn’t much excuse for it at the universities. The universities are, by nature, communities full of subcommunities. They’re not like a large, impersonal stretch of city. The university has so many opportunities to provide communities in the large sense, and smaller communities in the sense, say. of a graduate department. On most campuses, the student newspaper is a little community. The living groups can easily he communities if they’re designed properly. They don’t have to he impersonal.

But Gardner is optimistic: “I think that the college administrators arc more sensitive to the problem now. They understand fat better than they did that bigness brings problems that must be dealt.

What about the fact that more and more university presidents are coming front the corporate, rather than the educational. world? Does that help or hurt?

“I hate to see people in the business world put into a category,” Gardner said evenly. ‘They’re all kinds, really. I have seen some scholars who were really uninterested in originality and the community side of their campuses, and I’ve seen sonic businessmen who were. Actually, the nature of modern organization is so overpowering, that the top businessman is much more likely to have a degree beyond the A.B. than he used to and he just a well educated as the professional educator. The two worlds are growing toward each other because of the imperatives of large scale.

“To me,” he continues, restating what has become for him central theme, “the large-scale organization is one of the most perplexing problems of our time. You see, at Common Cause, we’re working on one aspect of that Problem: How in a nation of 215 million do you give people the chance to feel other than anonymous — to feel like persons, not just grains of sand in a bucket, to feel like part of something! I’m just attacking it on a political level, but it runs through everything! It runs through the morale of corporate workers. It runs through the character of the cities. It’s very gripping.”

Next we turned to the question of expertise and its rightful place in American society. What did Gardner, a former professor of psychology, think about the grossing numbers of bright young scholars who are enlisting in the Carter Administration, the first such movement since the Kennedy years. Was he pleased?

“Oh yes — absolutely,” he said immediately. “One of the things that strikes you as you work on contemporary problems is their sheer complexity. We didn’t know the answers. We don’t know the answer to inflation. We don’t know the answer to a workable world economic order of some sort. It takes intelligence to get through these problems anti, in some cases, a lot of background.

“A fellow like [Defense Secretary] Harold Brown cannot be talked down by a weapons specialist. He knows the subject matter just ass well, and he’s probably brighter. too. His kind of informational command is terribly important in a world full of problems that verge on unmanageable.. It’s essential that you have very bright people, and I for one am glad to see them come back.

“I do not for a minute assume that bright people are necessarily wise or of good character, but all the wisdom and good character in the world don’t matter if you don’t have the command of complicated situations. The tendency in a democratic country with a strong populist streak is to be scornful of high intelligence — but we need it.”

“The interesting thing,” Gardner declared, “is that this is a world that has been constructed by professional,, and must be run by them. But you have to watch them all the time. In other words, you have to put extremely good people — experts — into the key positions, and then you cannot let them dominate you. It’s in the nature of expertness to be arrogant and eventually to close off other considerations.

“You know, Shaw said that every profession is a conspiracy against the public. Now, I’m a professional to the core. I’ve grown up with professionals. I feel at home with them. But whether it’s the A.M.A., or the nuclear physicists, or whatever, the point conics ashen they need the saving voice of people who are not experts in that particular field — people who can say, ‘Wait a minute, something’s wrong here.’ ”

Is that what was lacking in the Johnson White House during the Vietnam years? Had “the best and the brightest,” to borrow David Halberstarn’s phrase, been given too much rein?

No, replied Gardner, who himself had resigned as Johnson’s Secretary of Health. Education and Welfare in January 1968, partly over his opposition to the conduct of the war. “No,” he said very softly, “I wouldn’t indict the academics to that extent.” The American debacle in Southeast Asia, lie insisted, was the product of our inbred interventionism, “and the time had to come when we had trouble on that ground.

“We were headed toward Vietnam ever since Hitler moved into Czechoslovakia. In the postwar years we fell into a habit of intervention. The Korean War should have served as warning that it was a hazardous pattern. But we didn’t heed the warning, and Vietnam followed. Almost any President who might have been there at that time, almost any stayed. “I found that I like politicians. I get along with them. I fight with them all the time. But I don’t dislike them as a breed,” he reflected, “I get along with them because they perceive me as so completely nonpolitical.”

That perception may, in fact, he close to the mark. Speaking to a visitor, Gardner seems, in many respects, the quintessential professor.

“I don’t know whether you pay any attention to information theory.” lie said, in explaining how and why he rigorously apportions his reading time, “but there’s so much noise in the flow of communications and a lot of redundancy. In fact, one very able communications specialist, Herb Simon, undertook to demonstrate that most physicists have reached the point where reading one more article produces such a tiny increment in information that they would do better to stop their reading, wait until the end of the year, and read of developments in various fields.”

I asked Gardner, just out of curiosity, whether some of his current reformist zeal derived from literature. He nodded.

“I did an enormous amount of reading seven years ago about the public interest,” he confided. “A phrase with a great history, and I hear people use it so carelessly, so naively, as though it were simple concept, which it isn’t A lot of reading about where the political process went wrong — corruption, unresponsiveness, always asking why’? Why did it go wrong?

“And it was out of that that we got the two themes we’ve been working on at Common Cause ever since: money and secrecy. These two things, over and over, prevent people from having access to the system and thereby obstruct the accountability of that system.”

Gardner put his hands behind his head. “So, yes, I did a lot of reading. I went clear back to the Colonial days. I read about the 19th century populists, the women’s movement, the abolitionists, the child labor movement, always looking for practical examples of citizen action.

“But,” he said abruptly. “I also mention Prohibition in my speeches because would hate to have our members have an uncomplicated a view of citizen action. Prohibition was the result of a citizens movement–the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. So I use that as an example, that just because it’s citizens’ movement doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Now, seven years after launching his good-government sale, Gardner admits he is, somewhat amazed by how aggressive he has become. “If anyone had told me ten years ago that I would be one of the most combative people in Washington,” he muses, “and enjoy it, I would hake said you’re crazy. Not my style. But at Common Cause you have to fight all the time. You right with friends, you fight with foes.”

Just two weeks earlier, Common Cause had racked up a massive victory when the bitterly contested Congressional ethics bill was hammered into law. Among other things, it places a trio line of $8,000 on a legislator’s allowable outside income.

“When we started Common Cause,’ he recalled, “Some of the most difficult times we had were with the most knowing people in Washington. ‘They’d seen all the tricks before and they simply wouldn’t believe that something new would work. They were jaded. But the people who came with us had more than taste of that willingness to believe that something might work beyond what worldly wisdom would dictate.”

More recently, Common Cause — which has a dues-paying membership of about 20,000 — has been lobbying for a law to create public financing of Congressional elections. That, too, will be an uphill fight.

As much as Gardner enjoys the fight, though, it does exact its price. “It may have hurt my writing,” he said, a little sadly. “I have spent 12 years using words as an instrument of action, and I fear it has really impaired my capacity to write as reflectively as I used to.”

Inevitably, too, some of Gardner’s more difficult initiate have made him enemies. They’ve even caused him to lose a few friends. “When you’re fighting,” he explained, philosophically, “people get hurt. It’s just something that happens when you’re moving power and trying to get something done.”

As we got up and shook hands, I noticed a proverb from Corneille — Gardner’s favorite hobby is collecting proverbs — which he had carefully written out on a small white card and placed on a bookshelf: “Faites votre devoir et laissez faire aux dieux (“Do your duty, and leave the rest to heaven.”)

In between sessions with Gardner, I visited with Elizabeth Drew, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, and a friend of Gardner’s since 1966. She testified to his pugnacity: “He’s a very strong-willed wan, and people are often misled by his rather gentle manner. He has firm ideas about the way he wants things to go. Fortunately for this country, they’re very idealistic.

“He looks like such a methodical, scheduled person, but he keeps himself free to be at ease with himself. He’s a deeply unconventional mall who observes some of the easier contentions.

“I think it’s important that he’s from California. He has a lot of the restless Frontier creativity.”

Gardner, who was born in Los Angeles and graduated from Stanford, later talked about that Frontier spirit: “When I went to New England at the age of 25, I was astonished at the attitudes. They would say that New London had the finest harbor between New York and Boston.

“‘That’s great,’ I would say, ‘What are you doing to make the best of that natural resource?’ They were surprised. It had never occurred to them.”

As Lyndon Johnson once said of Gardner, “He has dreams.” In retrospect, did Gardner think the Great Society might have been more pipe dream than dream? No, he didn’t, he declared flatly. “Everything worth getting excited about is a pipe dream.

“Ever since this country began, the idea that people should be able to achieve what is in them to achieve, develop their talents, be what they can be — that we should draw our leadership out of people who have the capacity to contribute — that’s been a very consistent thing in American life. But slow to develop, It was 89 years after the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ that we freed the slaves. We didn’t exactly rush into it.”

Yet Gardner feels that the Great Society programs might have been better run: “I used to call it the slot machine approach to social betterment. You put enough money in the machine and pull the handle and out comes a program. One day we would have no money to Study a program and the next we would have a billion dollars dropped in our lap.”

When asked where he thinks America is headed, John Gardner is optimistic. For instance, he takes as a healthy sign the increasing appeal of writers like E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful.

Everywhere he goes he gets astonishing audiences,” Gardner, himself an early connoisseur of smallness, said of Schumacher. “In this city the other night, he got 3,000. There’s a new consciousness. It’s been stirring for ten years. People are now seriously working with smaller patterns of social organization and more humane pattern of work.

lie leaned forward in his chair. “This is one of the most fascinating things about our society to me: that these ideas don’t come out of institutions. The greatest social changes have never come out of the Executive branch or the Congress or the parties or the national headquarters of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. or the Chamber of Commerce.

“They come out of people — not ‘the People’ as a political abstraction, but out of individual human beings and small groups.

“The government can’t do it. Change is something that comes out of the multiplicity and pluralism of the groupings in American society. As it goes along, groups get behind it and eventually Congress and others take all interest.”

As for technology, Gardner said. it can continue to play an important role in the new, smaller-thinking American society. “If we value those technological advancements that enhance our possibilities of choice,” he pointed out, “and are a little more suspicious of those advances which are just bigger and faster, if we keep technology as our servant rather than our master, then we’ll be all right.

What about his concept of the self-renewing man? Wasn’t that in large part simply a rationalization of Gardner’s own lifelong restlessness?

“Yes”, he smiled, knowingly. “My temperament is such that I don’t need the security of a profession and I don’t mind walking off the cliff, so to speak, into the future.

“But,” lie insisted, “I still believe that the idea of renewal can help a lot of people. I think there’s an awful lot of talent smothered under habit and the need for security.

“I really think there’s fifty or a hundred times the amount of talent in our society than is ever used. It’s buried ill the reaches of bureaucracy. It’s caught in the habits and prejudices of the people that imprison them. I hate to see that happen. I hate to see people imprisoned.”

It’s the man who can resist organizational imprisonment that Gardner truly admires. “To me,” he said, referring to his current, freelance status, “it’s great to be operating outside the institutional context, but there’s something very appealing about the person in that institutional context who can remain free.”

And what are Gardner’s plans for himself after leaving Common Cause. At the moment, nothing very specific.

“I’ve deliberately not made any decision because I wanted to wrap up my duties here without any interference in the sense Of rushing off to something. So I’ll be in the amusing position on April 23rd of not knowing what I’m going to do on April 24th.

“That’s kind of fun,” he smiled.

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