John Gardner; Common Cause Founder Was 89


John W. Gardner, educator’s educator, Cabinet secretary who served as the midwife for Medicare and--most memorably--the founder of Common Cause, who preached grass-roots citizen participation in government and became known as “the father of campaign finance reform,” has died. He was 89.

Gardner, secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, died Saturday at his home in Palo Alto on the campus of Stanford University, where he had taught since 1989.

An intellectual, a Republican, a liberal and innovative thinker, and a lifelong advocate of public involvement to renew and strengthen the nation, Gardner came into his own when he launched Common Cause on Aug. 18, 1970. Designed as a “citizens’ lobby,” the organization would campaign to end the Vietnam War, block development of a supersonic transport plane, reform the welfare system, extend access to public records and, enduringly, work for campaign finance reform, which is still in the headlines today.

Gardner, a native of Los Angeles, returned frequently to advocate reforms of campaign financing and other issues. In 1973, as the Watergate scandal wound on, he wrote in an op-ed page article for The Times: “The first step is redesign of our present system of campaign financing. The Watergate could not have happened had it not been for the huge amounts of secret cash in ... various black satchels.”

Among those reforms, he recommended public financing of election campaigns, limiting private contributions and expenditures in a given race, ending organized committee giving and strict oversight and fines for violations. He saw many of his proposals enacted into federal and state law.


Gardner campaigned in 1974 for passage of California’s Proposition 9, which provided for full disclosure of campaign contributions, curbs on contributions from registered lobbyists and tighter disclosure rules for state and local officials.

At the outset, Gardner planned to recruit 100,000 members for his Common Cause, which he described as a “true citizens’ lobby concerned not with the advancement of special interests but with the well-being of the nation.” In less than six months he had signed up the 100,000, and by the time he stepped down as president in 1977, his ambitious organization boasted 253,000 dues-paying citizens.

Some critics claimed that Common Cause overlapped efforts of existing organizations such as the ACLU and Sierra Club and that, far from representing all the people, it encompassed only wealthy, liberal, elitist intellectuals. But none of that detracted from genuine inroads made by Gardner and his group.

“When Americans attend open meetings or read their government’s documents, or take part in our battered but resilient public finance system for presidential elections, there is a memorial to John Gardner,” current Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger said. “When we turn on public television, or when government ensures no senior or poor person goes without health care, we take part in programs John Gardner initiated.”

That episode was one in a long string of successes for the man who seemed never to stop thinking, acting, prodding and pontificating for the betterment of mankind.

He began and ended his six-decade career doing formally what he always did in various ways--teaching. With degrees in psychology from Stanford and UC Berkeley, he taught psychology at Connecticut College for Women and Mount Holyoke College from 1938 to 1942. Next came a year with the Federal Communications Commission and a stint in the Marine Corps during World War II.

After many intervening years of practicing and espousing public service, he capped his career by returning to his alma mater, Stanford, in 1989 to teach--what else?--public service.

Gardner spent two decades with the New York-based Carnegie Corp. and its Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, providing grants and support for innovative education programs. He began as a staff member in 1946, was president by 1955, and remained until President Johnson tapped him for his Cabinet in 1965.

A frequent advisor to government educational and social endeavors, Gardner--despite being odd man out in the Democratic administration--was a logical choice for Johnson’s “Great Society.” He thrived on fighting for education, anti-poverty and health programs.

In addition to managing the huge and unwieldy bureaucracy of HEW, and as a respected educator delaying its spinoff of education, Gardner found himself working for such diverse issues as automobile air-pollution controls, noncommercial public television and radio, integration of schools and hospitals, welfare reform and improving public health.

Johnson relied upon him to implement the gargantuan new and controversial Medicare program as well as to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act and help drive through the landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

None of it daunted Gardner. What prompted him to resign in 1968 was his growing dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam and conviction that Johnson should neither pursue the war nor reelection.

When he left political office, Gardner only strengthened his work for public reforms. But he did it through citizen and lobbying groups, first for the Urban Coalition, which he chaired from 1968 to 1970, and then with Common Cause.

He had one more project before returning to his beloved classroom, and in the late 1970s began a decade of organizing private charities and voluntary organizations to combat government regulation that thwarted their efforts to serve the public. In 1980, he co-founded and chaired Independent Sector to encourage volunteerism and win government support for it.

To train young people for public service, Gardner worked for years to establish what became the White House Fellows program and chaired its advisory commission from 1977 to 1980.

After President John F. Kennedy named Gardner to his Task Force on Education and as chair of the U.S. Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs, Gardner in 1962 edited a volume of Kennedy’s speeches, “To Turn the Tide.”

A prolific writer, Gardner continually penned opinion articles for newspapers and magazines and wrote seven books, always urging people to strive toward new goals. Among them were “Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?” in 1961 and, three years later, “Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society.” A Times reviewer wrote of the latter book: “This is one of those rich and rare books which you should read slowly. Gardner ... presents as many ideas on a single page as some authors do in a whole chapter--and then reread.”

“Gardner writes with great clarity and brilliance,” the reviewer commented. “The book should be required reading for any person wondering just where he is going on life’s long journey.”

Subsequent Gardner books included “No Easy Victories,” “Recovery of Confidence,” “In Common Cause” and “Morale.”

Gardner was chairman of the National Civic League from 1994 to 1996 and at various times served as trustee of the New York School of Social Work, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Stanford University, Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Enterprise Foundation.

Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and two years later Gardner received the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal.

He is survived by his wife of 67 years, the former Aida Marroquin; two daughters, Stephanie Gardner Trimble and Francesca Gardner; a brother, Louis Gardner; and four grandchildren.