John W. Gardner

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

VTR Date: September 22, 1993

Guest: Gardner, John W.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Gardner
VTR: 9/22/93
“John W. Gardner – A Life Devoted to Excellence and Self-Renewal”, Part II

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with John Gardner. Early on a teacher of psychology, a champion swimmer, a United States Marine, John W. Gardner was president or the Carnegie Corporation for many years. Secretary or Health, Education and Welfare in Lyndon Johnson’s halcyon great society days, chairman of the National Urban Coalition, founder and chairman of the powerful citizens lobby, Common Cause, and chairman of Independent Sector. Now Dr. Gardner teaches at Stanford University, his alma mater.

Thank you for staying with me for a second program, Dr. Gardner. We were talking about accommodation in political life when we ended our former program, our previous program. I wanted to carry that on. I know that you were an enormous admirer and remain an enormous admirer or Lyndon Johnson. How does accommodation enter into your picture of that man who has the reputation of bullying through every bit of legislation?

GARDNER: Well, it he hadn’t bullied it through, a lot of it wouldn’t have been done. The thing that people don’t recognize about our system is that It has a strong tendency to grind to a halt between crises. And as I have told you before, it’s something James Madison didn’t warn us about, but in tact its a system that tends just to need a push. A president who can’t supply that push, or in periods when there’s no crisis to supply the push, is very difficult. A great deal of the legislation that’s still on the books, including Medicare, including the civil rights legislation, is there probably because of Lyndon Johnson’s enormous intention that it be passed, and his understanding of Congress. And his understanding of Congress was also a recognition that it’s a procedure of accommodation. I mean, any first-class worker with Congress knows that you have to give some in order to take some. And he was quite prepared to deal with the fact that these are the cross-currents, you have to face them. But he provided the motive power for the civil rights bill. In fact, in the whole package that I was involved in, which was health, education, welfare, civil rights, etcetera, he was absolutely whole-heartedly supportive of those objectives and provided the drive and the energy that enabled me to get done what I had to get done. I could not have gotten Medicare through by myself. This was presidential clout. The same with civil rights.

HEFENER: Do you think it’s possible to have that clout and make use or it without the kind of congressional background that Lyndon Johnson had?

GARDNER: It’s pretty hard. It’s pretty hard, I would guess that if you had been a lobbyist a good many years you might have some of it. And if you have crises, you see. Franklin Roosevelt came in and a big segment of the country was saying, “Lead us. We’re with you.” An advantage that no president for some time has had. And most of our great presidents have been the product of crises. But without the crisis then, not only a driving purpose but a sense of how that congressional mechanism works, is absolutely vital. I believe that the president should have a cabinet-level congressional liaison. It is that important. Congress has, time and again in the past in my lifetime, cut the ground out from under presidents and their programs. And I think they much underrate that relationship. I believe it should be a cabinet-level person, perhaps with congressional/senatorial experience,

HEFFNER: You know, the thought occurs to me to ask: It’s so clear that what you’re saying is right, why haven’t we? I mean, Lyndon Johnson did it on his own, I mean, he could He knew them all. He knew the backdoors and the inner secrets. But why haven’t we? Has the conflict or the separation of powers been so strong that no one could think of that?

GARDNER: I think more that it is a somewhat downgrading of the lobbying function. We think that’s a lesser thing, getting in there and trying to influence the Congress. High-minded people think lobbying is, you know, a lesser thing. in fact, high-minded people think that the whole basement of power, the people, they think the people who work down in the engine rooms of power are lesser beings, and that’s why high-minded people so often come down to defeat. They don’t face the fact that this is a system that has its own rules, its own way of functioning. You better find out what they are and work to win. Even if your goal is to defeat the system, you better know the system.

HEFFNER: So, I gather what you’re saying is that Common Cause developed its lobbying skills because it didn’t like what the result was of the lobbying that was going on but it didn’t disparage the concept of lobbying.

GARDNER: It didn’t disparage the process, and didn’t disparage the institution of Congress. Things wrong with it, which we fought very hard to change Opening up meetings, righting the seniority system, insisting on disclosure of conflict of interest. But basically a respect for the fact that this Is a system that has its own way or functioning, and you better understand it.

HEFFNER: But now, going back to this matter – its not that we’ve moved away from it – this matter of accommodation. Your thought is that we’ll have a sort of a supreme accommodator. And I don’t mean “supreme” in terms of control, but in terms of knowledge, or where the buttons are to be pushed. And accommodate accordingly. Do you think there’s any possibility? Isn’t the vice president today coming to function more in that role than anyone before?

GARDNER: That’s quite possible. There are limitations on the vice president role, as you know. Some of which I don’t fully understand, but every vice president has been subject to them. But the necessity for accommodation is there, and sometimes terribly important. For example, when we started Common Cause, we had a strong tendency to want to write our own piece of legislation and send it up the hill. And finally, I said, “Look, don’t do it. Go up the hill with a set of principles, and discuss it with the people there who are most likely to be friendly with you.” And the resulting accommodation was often to our benefit. That is, people up there would say, “Look, to be realistic you’ve got to understand, this isn’t going to work. This might work, but it won’t get the votes. You change the sentence this way and it will be a much more powerful piece of legislation.” There’s a lot of experience up there. So accommodation is not just giving away things that you want, but it’s also having the benefit of other people’s experience.

HEFFNER: Well now, certainly among the people I know, there is a tendency to disparage the notion of accommodation, and accommodation seems always to mean defeat, giving up, turning coat, etcetera. Do you think the president, do you think that Bill Clinton is going to be able to use the concept or accommodation without losing the support of these people who know a little less about politics and more about what they want right now?

GARDNER: No. You’ve got 535 purposeful people on the hill And all skilled, or most of them very skilled in getting what they want. And of course they’ll accommodate you right off the map if you don’t have a strong sense of purpose and the capacity to put pressure on them; and what you really have to realize is that they’re under pressure. They’re under pressure from their donors; they’re under pressure from their constituencies and so forth. And if you’re coming to them with something that might put them in hazard with their constituents or their donors, you better have some force. So It isn’t all accommodation. It’s accommodation when you have to do it, but also a lot of driving pressure to get it done.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about leadership, aren’t you?

GARDNER: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And that’s the theme that you’re devoting yourself to now.

GARDNER: That’s right. And the thing you discover in leadership, by the way, is that leadership always involves accommodation, even in dictatorships, even with monarchs, in all systems, that were very much top down. But they very soon discovered that if they went too hard against the folk traditions, it was just a nuisance. I mean, they could do it. You know, with machine guns you can do anything. But to go against the deeply rooted folk traditions even in old monarchical societies, rulers found it just too much trouble. Better let that feast day alone and schedule your plans on some other day.

HEFFNER: Now, do you think that the framework structured for us in the eighteenth century the constitutional framework, the separation of powers, etcetera, do you think we can live with that into the twenty-first ‘century?

GARDNER: Oh, yes. Absolutely, I think that the present campaign financing system is a devastating undercutting of that system. For example, we think of the executive branch as independent. It isn’t independent. The private sector has beachheads in every part of the executive branch. It has beachheads in Congress. So we have to correct that. And we have to face the fact that it, the word “separation of power’ just has a little hint of, more of a hint of adversarial kneelings than you would like, If they don’t work together, It isn’t going to work.

HEFFNER: But that’s been our experience I or so many decades now.

GARDNER: Yeah. But it doesn’t need to be. I mean, I hate to go back to Arthur Vandenburg, but in a single act of statesmanship he undercut the whole isolationist movement and moved in to relate to a democratic administration.

HEFFNER: Yeah but John) you can’t deny the tact that Vandenburg, Arthur Vandenburg is a name you and I know and is undoubtedly not known to most, even most at the people who are watching this program. Arid we have had decades since Vandenberg’s bipartisanship. Where is it written that were going to be able to recapture that?

GARDNER: Well, go back and look at the extent to which Lyndon Johnson cooperated with Eisenhower, and it’s pretty impressive. I think you get below the level or the great front-of-the-stage battles and you’ll rind quite a lot of cooperation of senior committee chairmen with the White House, and willingness to work together. And I think there are, some of the most powerful people in Congress, in fact, all through Congress there are people who kind basically want it to work. They don’t want it to tail You know? They want it to work. And once they get their little packet of personal concerns dealt with, or even partly dealt with, because they have to accommodate too, they’re willing to try to make the thing work.

HEFFNER: You’re always a wonderful optimist. And you’re seeing so clearly what the problems are. And your assumption, on the basis of your experience, obviously, that they want it to work enough, let it work. My only problem is looking at deadline, gridlock of recent years, it doesn’t seem that way unless you wanted to say we simply didn’t have people in leadership positions who knew how to balance their accommodations sufficiently.

GARDNER: We’re at a devastating period in our national lire. From the assassination of Kennedy through Watergate. Almost a national nervous breakdown. Assassinations, campus riots, terrible urban riots. As you know, I was chairman of the National Urban Coalition, working on the solution to these riots. And then Watergate. A period of ‘63 to ‘74, I years of devastating public occurrences: We never quite recovered from that period. I think we’ve steadily built back, but we haven’t really recovered. And it’s going to take more time to restore public confidence.

HEFFNER: Do you include the Vietnam War in that?

GARDNER: Oh, yes, absolutely. Absolutely. A devastating experience for the public and the government.

HEFFNER: It must have been f or you, as Secretary of HEW.

GARDNER: It was, for me. But I was working on a, more than I thought as important in another way, and that was the civil rights battle which it seemed to me absolutely crucial to deal with properly.

HEFFNER: Do you think we dealt with it sufficiently until the day?

GARDNER: No. No. But it was a big game. Big games through our lifetime. When I was a young man, Black males were being lynched by the week through the South. I mean, you know that story. And that was the 1920 you almost never saw a Black in the lobby of a hotel, of a first-class hotel, or on an airplane, for that matter. And I don think we realize how far we’ve come, thanks to the work of Thurgood Marshall, was perhaps more important than Martin Luther King, although King was a tremendously brave, eloquent leader. But thanks to those people we made enormous gains.

HEFFNER: And thanks, as we’ve discussed our mutual feelings, our respective feelings about Lyndon Johnson, I have to concede, thanks to Lyndon Johnson’s appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the high court. What a strange combination of thoughts to have about one president.


HEFFNER: Vietnam, and the contributions of the great society. You know…

GARDNER: Let me say one word about Thurgood Marshall.

HEFFNER: I’m sorry. Sure.

GARDNER: What people don’t realize is that back In the forties when nobody was paying attention to this subject, Thurgood Marshall and a few other civil rights lawyers were building basis for the 1954 decision that changed the whole picture of civil rights. Quietly, no bands playing, suing here, suing there, laying the legal basis for what finally became Brown versus the Board of Education. Supreme Court decision. It didn’t just come out of the blue. It came out of some people who were working hard, quietly And that’s exciting.

HEFFNER: You know, when Thurgood Marshall was here on The Open Mind, several times, a big, gruff man in many ways, but so gentle in his understanding of, in a sense very much like your own, of the understanding of the need for accommodation, for meeting the front needs, not only of the Black community, but of the White community that had to recognize what was, what the threats were before them.

GARDNER: Right. And of course the battle continues On most of these battles we still have a tong way to go.

HEFFNER: You know, before we end this program, I want to come back to a couple of things you said many years ago, and I know that you would say now. This line always got me. You said, in Self-Renewal, you said, “This society is suffering not from confusion, but from infidelity.” And I believe you meant Infidelity, unfaithfulness to the values that have historically, or had historically undergird American life. How do you reverse that? How do you make the unfaithful faithful, or help the unfaithful become faithful to those values?

GARDNER: I think were coming to face the fact that we can teach values. I’m talking about justice, liberty, equality, the dignity and worth of the individual. We can reinforce those in children, in schools. Teachers over the past 30, 40 years became so frightened about teaching values because they might be criticized that they moved away from the whole subject. But there’s some of these basic things that are written into our Constitution, Shouldn’t be frightened about them. They’re there. They’re in the Bill of Rights, and we ought to be explicitly teaching these all the time. But the point I was making in that sentence is that most people understand what these values are, and when they’re unfaithful to them they know it. And it’s just something we just have to keep working on.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s… Your optimistic assumption again is that people know what it Is that they’re doing, How do they know If they’re not taught, if in fact, in our school system, as you say, we have shied away from the question of values. Now, you say there are the obvious ones that are written into our great documents. But we have seemingly come to know less and less about them. I mean, even, remember, at the end of the Korean War, when John Darling was making his study of how come we had so many American turncoats? And his conclusion was that we knew so little, those young men knew so little about our traditions, about our values, about our history, that how could they not be brainwashed by the North Koreans. Do you think that’s changed?

GARDNER: No, I think you win this argument. I think we need to teach them more fully and more explicitly and more clearly what these values are.

HEFFNER: But who’s going to teach them? The people who weren’t taught? That’s what we’re talking about. Were talking about a generation of teachers now who didn’t experience what you and I experienced in school,

GARDNER: No, but they can read. They can read. It’s all in your Documenting History in the United States, Dick Heffner.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Thank you.

GARDNER: You got this all in paperback. And refer to it. But you can teach these kids right out of the documents what are the values that America though it was to live by. It’s in the Bill of Rights and a lot or other documents. And we should be doing it.

HEFFNER: And the other values that are not quite so clear, the moral values that have been the basis for argument by Dan Quayle and others, how do feel about our potential, and when you write about community, reinventing community? Community is based upon a do-something-for-someone-else.

GARDNER: Right. Well, here there’s another real failing in contemporary society. From the first grade we start teaching kids that all that matters is their Individual performance. It’s me and my SAT score. It’s how I write that essay or how I add up that column of numbers that counts. Not how I relate to the other human beings. And this continues right on through high school, through college. By the time I dealt with them as graduate students they’re absolutely confirmed in the conviction that individual performance is what matters. It’s a devastating thing if you want to develop leaders. Because leaders; by definition, are people who relate to other people. And they have a real feeling about how those other people relate to them. And these kids have come up never thinking, unless they have the good luck to get into team sports, nothing else says to them it’s crucial how you relate to other human beings.

HEFFNER: You know, that’s the theme, when we come back again, when you come back to this studio to do more Open Minds in the years ahead, I hope we can see whets happened to that, because now our program is over. Thank you very much for joining me today, John Gardner.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program, please write: The Open Mind, P0 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”