John W. Gardner

John W. Gardner –A Life Devoted to Excellence and Self-Renewal, Part I

VTR Date: September 22, 1993

Guest: Gardner, John W.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Gardner
VTRP: 9/22/93

“John W. Gardner – A Life Devoted to Excellence and Self-Renewal” Part I

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is perhaps the wisest of the many elder wise men I’ve had the privilege to know in my own somewhat shorter but still respectably full lifetime. Early on a teacher of psychology, a champion swimmer, a United States Marine, John W. Gardner was president of the Carnegie Corporation for many years. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare of Lyndon Johnson’s halcyon great society days, chairman of the National Urban Coalition, founder and chairman of the powerful citizen’s lobby, Common Cause, and chairman of Independent Sector. Now Dr. Gardner teaches at Stanford University, his alma mater.

Excellence, Self-Renewal. Three decades ago, in brief but brilliant volumes by those titles and about those seminal themes so crucial to national, no less than personal survival and triumph, John Gardner set standards for insight and self-awareness that have never been challenged, nor, unhappily, achieved by Americans at large, as he so much wanted them to be. In all that he has said and written, to be sure, my guest has always widely kept in mind his only insight that to their and to our detriment, twentieth century American institutions have largely been caught, as he described it, “In a savage crossfire between uncritical lovers and unloving critics.” He belongs to neither camp. But the next century aborning won’t be ours, John Gardner’s and mine; rather our children’s and our grandchildren’s. And I would like us to intrude just a bit today on our young president’s turf to extent that Bill Clinton uses change as his lodestar, as America’s guide into the twenty-first century.

And I would first ask my guest whether and how he has changed his own mind about many of the great issues that he has addressed in the past, and about the guidelines he has so forcefully offered his countrymen back in our day. Dr. Gardner, have you changed your mind, since change is the essence of a good civilization?

GARDNER: Well, I think I have changed more or less continuously. I don’t even notice it, but you do evolve. I suppose that if I go back to my earliest writing and my writing today, I put a great deal more emphasis on community today, a great deal more emphasis on the individual in my early writing. I began my writing in the fifties, where there was really quite a lot of conformity. And I was writing about the individual, creativity in the individual. I still believe very strongly in that. But I now recognize that the steady disintegration of community in our national life, and I weigh that against individualism. And you’ve got to have both, but you must have that surround of community in order for people to be full individuals even.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s interesting that you say you really haven’t abandoned the interest in individualism. You see community as an absolute need for nurturing the individual.


GARDNER: That’s right. That’s right. And practically all the freedoms that make individualism possible are social constructions. I mean, society created habeas corpus, and created the Constitution and all the rest. So it takes a community to create these institutions that keep people free.

HEFFNER: Yes, but the observation is so widespread that today the notion of community doesn’t have very much of a place, that we are not so much concerned with individualism in the sense that you meant it in the 1950’s, but with a kind of, “I’m for me, the devil take the hindmost.” How do you… You talk here in this wonderful essay on reinventing community, delivered at a Carnegie Corporation meeting at the end of 1992, you talk about “reinventing community.” How in the world do you reinvent it when the values that undergird a community aren’t really so much with us?

GARDNER: I think human beings are community-builders. I think if you read history you will discover that after disasters and conquests and famines and plagues and things that disintegrate community, people reweave communities, if they’re given the chance. It’s very hard today because of the transience, the mobility, everybody is moving all the time. But it is totally possible in a church, in a school, in a neighborhood, to rebuild community if you make it possible for people to do so. In a housing project for example, are marvelous examples of rebuilding community so people really feel that they’re in something more than just their own recreational vehicle.

HEFFNER: Do you think we experience now, as a people, enough of a sense of — I won’t say disaster — of crisis, so that we will return to what you say we’re capable of, communitarianism?

GARDNER: Oh, yes. Absolutely. It has come back rather rapidly in the past half-dozen years. And the impact of the events in, particularly in our larger cities, the drive-by shootings, are devastating experience for everybody who reads about them. The things that happen, the innocent bystanders who are killed on the streets, this rips the fabric of the sense of security that you get out of community. And people are longing to get back to some kind of sense of security, a sense of belonging, a sense of place, a mutual dependence, interdependence that community provides.

HEFFNER: You know, it was here in the notes I was making as I went back to these wonderful books that I’ve had for 30 years, Excellence and Self-Renewal, trying to find the page of, you said, oh, you said there that, “No society ever, or has ever fully…” Well, first you say, “Like equalitarianism, emphasis on individual performance can be pushed to extremes. And we now know that there are hazards in such extremes. ‘Everyone for himself and the devil take the hindmost’ is a colorful saying but an unworkable model for social organization. No society has ever fully tested this manner of organizing human relationships.” But haven’t we, in a sense, in the last generation, not only tested but embraced that model?

GARDNER: We’ve gone pretty far, we’ve gone pretty far. But there’s still lots of evidences of community if you look for them, and even more promising, there are evidences of communities being built, created. In a number of the housing projects that are being developed today they start by building community. And when they finish, the people in the projects feel they own that venture. They look after the property. They drive away the drug dealers. Because they have this sense of solidarity, in a way.

HEFFNER: So your picture of the nature of human nature includes very much the community drive, the drive to invent, or as you say, reinvent community?


GARDNER: Absolutely. I recognize all of the dark sides of human nature. But I will tell you that if all memory of laws and morals and everything else were wiped out today, humans would start putting it back together tomorrow. It’s that deep. It’s no accident that we have had codes of laws throughout human history.

Heffner: John, is that a function of your training as a psychologist? Is that your insight gained through the study of psychology?

GARDNER: No, I think it’s more the study of history and anthropology. History and anthropology are the two things that really tell you about the formation of human societies. And there it is. You just see it.

HEFFNER: Then, you know, in Excellence, your emphasis upon excellence, the note I made to ask you: Is excellence possible when enterprise is another valued theme? Isn’t there a conflict in a society such as ours between the notion of excellence and the notion of community on the one hand, and on the other hand, the notion of enterprise, where the marketplace plays such a large role in our lives?

GARDNER: I think there are aspects of the marketplace that drive you toward the lowest common denominator. But I wouldn’t put the word “enterprise” in there.

HEFFNER: Why not?

GARDNER: Well, I’ve been looking at the whole range of social problem-solving, from housing to community-oriented policing, to parent training and prenatal care and so forth. And the people who start the best of those projects, and they’re doing it today — and it’s almost invisible for most Americans because the media don’t report it — they’re entrepreneurs. They set out and build something. And I’ve started several organization in the sense. I’m an entrepreneur. So I think the word “enterprise” has to include these, a lot of ventures that really are not devastated by the lowest common denominator standards.

HEFFNER: But wait a minute. I don’t think I’m expressing myself well enough then, although maybe I am and you’re simply saying no. Because when I use the word “enterprise,” I’m talking about the prevalence of the buck in our lives. I’m not talking about enterprise in the service of the public interest. I’m talking about something very different. And you may still say you need that profit motive.

GARDNER: I think enterprise has kept our society loose and flexible and capable of moving in a lot of different directions. And I certainly think that the rigidities which brought down the Soviet Union were partly a failure of, an organizational failure, and a lack of room for enterprise. I think this is what we’re beginning to understand. But you have to keep it within bounds, you have to have standards, and there isn’t the slightest doubt that many market ventures slip way below. All you have to do is turn on the TV to recognize that the marketplace doesn’t always drive toward excellence. Very far from it. It often goes the other way.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ve modified your statement. “Doesn’t often drive toward excellence.” And then you say, “Quite to the contrary.” Does your faith in what we’ll call free enterprise, the marketplace concept, is that borne out by what you see going on now in the reinvention of community?


GARDNER: Oh yes. It isn’t exactly the marketplace, but look at the non-profit sector. It is the most free, diverse part of our society. You can start anything. All you need to do is to have a letterhead and you can start, you can revive the Flat Earth Society if you want to, or you can start a new movement of a new religion, whatever. And out of that has come all kind of incredible and incredibly creative things. Our great museums and all the rest. But at the level of problem-solving, it means that somebody out in Oakland, California can decide that there’s a new way of going at job training, and put it into effect. Somebody in Indianapolis can tackle the problem of neighborhood redevelopment in a new way. There’s no barriers. And this is a great thing. And really the reason the Soviet Union failed was too many factory managers out in the provinces and farm managers sitting around waiting for orders from Moscow, and not given the opportunity to do what they could do. And what we’ve learned is that all these large-scale systems — and this is what the vice president is now struggling with — all of the, corporate, such as IBM, governmental, cannot work unless you have leadership dispersed downward and outward through the system and give quite a lot of freedom to those folks at the periphery of the system to make their own decisions. They know how that piece of the system works. They have to be able to make it work.

HEFFNER: What happened to that insight? I remember after the Second World War, a governor like Adlai Stevenson in Illinois and a governor like Earl Warren in California understood the importance of devolution. And then, was it Lyndon Johnson’s great society that pushed us in the other direction? Seriously. And I know the part you played in that great society.

GARDNER: No. I think that Stevenson and Earl Warren were, like Alfred Sloan of that same period, they foresaw something. We were still headed in the other direction. We were in love with large-scale organization, and didn’t understand its hazards. After all, we’ve had it ever since, you know, the days of Alexander the Great and Caesar, the Roman Empire. But communication and transportation were so slow in those days that people at the edge of the system had a lot of freedom. And Caesar didn’t have to send a fax to the Roman senate when he invaded Britain. Today, well, in the late nineteenth century it began to become apparent that transportation and communication had reached a point where you could really centralize, you could really control a big, big system from the center. We didn’t really face up to it until the Germans and the Japanese began to out compete us around 1970. And the corporate world woke up and said, “Something’s not working.” And they proceeded. For the past 20 years they’ve been traveling the road back, trying to devolve, trying to take these enormous, monolithic structures and make them work. And that means a real turnaround, which IBM was too slow to recognize, General Motors was too slow to recognize. But that’s where we’re headed, and that’s where government’s got to go.

HEFFNER: You say, “Got to go.” What’s your estimate of the chances that government will go in that direction. And when Al Gore talks about reinventing government, and the president does, an awful lot of people sitting on the sidelines laughing away. Just try it.

GARDNER: Well, they laugh because it’s kind of a tradition that the second week in office the president discovers that the buttons on his desk aren’t connected to anything, and he asks for a commission on reorganization of government. That’s not what’s happening this time. This is different. This is, you have to see this in the context of the past 20 years of corporate effort. Twenty years of struggling to correct those flaws of large-scale organization while government was sitting doing nothing to try to correct its flaws. And now the time has come, and it’s a movement that just really can’t be denied. It’s going to happen. Now, lots of resistances, lots of… And one of the things that concerns me is that there’s almost no reference in any of this to campaign finance reform. And it’s the money flowing in through the doors and windows that keeps a lot of dysfunctional things in place in Washington. They’re dysfunctional from the taxpayers’ point of view. They’re not dysfunctional from the standpoint of some special interests. They love it. They put it in place through their congressional ties. They wanted that. That’s where the vice president’s going to face the problem. He’s aware of it, I’m sure.


HEFFNER: You know, many years ago I directed a Twentieth Century Fund project on Money, Television and Politics. And I remember Tommy Corcoran, who was one of the members of the commission, saying, “Well, we’ll make our report, and nothing will happen. But 20 years from now, maybe 40 years from now, it’ll happen. And make sure the report is there.” You think it will happen? Reform?

GARDNER: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. We’re going to get change. We’re already getting it. We’re already getting it.

HEFFNER: In terms of campaign finances?

GARDNER: Well, no. That’s a tougher thing. We now have the best opportunity we have had in 20 years to get real campaign finance reform. But what happens to it I wouldn’t predict. I have high hopes. Common Cause got pledges from a high percentage of the Congress in the course of the campaign. But they don’t like it. It’s not a conservative/liberal issue. It’s not a Democratic/Republican issue. It’s an incumbent versus challenger issue. We’ve never figured out how to get the laws passed by challengers. So it’s the incumbents hating campaign finance reform, even though they also hate the present system. I mean, a great many of them just hate going out having to raise money. But they also can’t stand the idea that their challenger might receive public subsidy.

HEFFNER: Do you think that despite Ross Perot’s continuing attack on the interests, the lobbies, etcetera, etcetera, do you think that we as a people really feel sufficiently strongly about that matter that Common Cause is going to be able to carry the day?

GARDNER: The general public feels very, very strongly about corruption and what they call government waste. And their opinion of government is really quite low. They don’t necessarily connect that with campaign gifts. That is not a powerful thing in their consciousness. You just have to keep reminding them that this is the horse that pulls the cart. It’s the money that bring about the corruption and brings about change behind the scenes that the voter never knows about. .

HEFFNER: Now, we’re not now talking about government; we’re talking about our doctors, we’re talking about our lawyers, we’re talking about this industry and that industry.

GARDNER: Oh, yes, Right.

HEFFNER: And we can’t aim, target enough. What is happening now in terms of, for instance, Common Cause’s devotion to this subject that gives you hope?

GARDNER: Common Cause is putting every possible effort on this because it’s a key moment. It’s just the moment when we might get good legislation. And we’ve got a lot of people signed up. Tom Foley, for example, has agreed, although he says it won’t take effect before 1995, which…

HEFFNER: Well, I’m gone.

GARDNER: …comfortably puts it beyond the next election. But I think we’ll get it. The problem is the same as the problem with the health legislation, and that is the accommodations that come in the legislative process. You’ve got a great idea, but by the time it gets chewed up, traded off, and so forth, there may be some one of those accommodations that we can set in a devastating way.

HEFFNER: But not, certainly you of all people aren’t setting your canon against accommodation. Isn’t that the mother’s milk of political reality, accommodation?


GARDNER: Yes, but there’s good accommodation and bad accommodation. And if you’re engaged in lobbying, as I was engaged for 12 years, you’re constantly trying to figure out what you can give up and still keep a good piece of legislation, and what you can’t give up. And sometimes it’s a decision at three o’clock in the afternoon, and you haven’t got time, whether you’re going to register a protest or not, and some of the accommodations are bad. The provision in the,. I think it was 1974 legislation which permitted the pacts, was a last-minute change. And it was so last minute that we couldn’t revise our stand and launches a full-scale attack on it. And that’s the kind of thing you just face. That’s the legislative process.

HEFFNER: So, in a sense, you packed it in, with that accommodation.


HEFFNER: And it’s at that point, John Gardner, I want to thank you for joining me today, and hope that you’ll come back. Thanks again.

GARDNER: Great pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, PO Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”