John W. Gardner

"Conversations With and About Mike"



John W. Gardner (born 1912) had a varied and productive career as an educator, public official, and political reformer. Perhaps best known as the founder of the lobby Common Cause, he was the author of several best-selling books on the themes of achieving personal and societal excellence.

John William Gardner was born in Los Angeles, California, on October 8, 1912. The younger of two sons born to William and Marie F. Gardner, Gardner’s father died when he was one. Gardner was raised by his mother, who passed on to him a zest for literature and travel. After taking one year off to travel the world, Gardner graduated from high school in 1930. He attended Stanford as an undergraduate and became a Pacific Coast free-style swimming champion during this time. He graduated from Stanford in 1935 with a degree in psychology. The year before, he had married native Guatemalan Aïda Marroquin. They later had two daughters, Stephanie and Francesca.

In 1936 Gardner received an M.A. in psychology from Stanford, followed by a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1938. His dissertation on “Levels of Aspiration” foreshadowed much of his later work on individual goal-setting and achievement.

World War II interrupted Gardner’s budding teaching career (two years as an instructor at the Connecticut College for Women followed by two years as an assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College), but it allowed him to use his academic expertise. Assigned to intelligence in 1942, he initially monitored Axis radio propaganda, then was switched to the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA), where he contributed to the development of OSS personnel assessment tests and helped test, process, and assign OSS agents. He was discharged from service in 1946 with the rank of captain.

Foundation Executive And Author

Gardner’s public career began with his employment in 1946 as a staff member at the Carnegie Corporation, a foundation dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. By 1955 he had become the foundation’s president. He played a decisive role in awarding Carnegie grants supporting such activities as the Russian Research Center and Cognitive Studies Center at Harvard and what became known as the “new math.” In 1958 he oversaw preparation of an important report published by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Pursuit of Excellence: Education and the Future of America.

Gardner produced his best-known book in 1961 titled Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? In the book he discussed the dilemma of encouraging merit in a democracy, urging commitment to high standards in education, and rejection of “shoddiness” in any field, be it plumbing or philosophy. Three years later he published a book presenting the case for emphasis on a “common good” without sacrificing human individuality (Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society).

Public Servant

While president of Carnegie, Gardner served frequently as a consultant to federal agencies. In 1961 he edited a collection of President Kennedy’s political statements (To Turn the Tide), and in early 1964 he was appointed by President Johnson to chair a White House task force on education. The panel brought in a report favoring federal aid to public schools to equalize education in areas of poverty and to encourage qualitative improvements and innovations in local communities. Many of its recommendations were enacted in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

In August 1965 Gardner became Johnson’s secretary of health, education and welfare, remaining in that position until early 1968. While running the sprawling 90,000 employee department, he consolidated several of its social rehabilitation agencies and administered many of the newly enacted Great Society programs. After leaving the cabinet, he became chairman of the National Urban Coalition, a lobby working to halt the deterioration of inner cities. Frustrated with the opposition the NUC encountered from organized special interests, Gardner decided that a broader-based organization was needed to help bring about reform in an increasingly unresponsive political system.

Thus in 1970 he launched Common Cause, persuading several benefactors to finance a drive that netted 200,000 members within a year. A “public interest” lobby, Common Cause concerned itself with a wide range of issues including the Vietnam War, social welfare, and environmentalism. At first it drew substantial annual income from large contributions, but its base broadened quickly; in 1976 its governing board voted not to take donations exceeding $100 from corporations or unions. By the mid 1970s Common Cause had become closely identified with governmental reform generally, including campaign finance limits and disclosure laws, lowering of the voting age, and reform of the seniority system in Congress. Pragmatic in his view of politics as “a trading out of conflicting interests,” however, Gardner insisted that influential positions in Common Cause be held by professional lobbyists and organizers. He stepped down as head of the organization in early 1977, remaining as chairman emeritus with an office in the same building. Common Cause membership declined after his departure, though the organization continued to be very active.

Gardner produced four books during the late 1960s and 1970s: No Easy Victory (1968), a study of the challenges confronting social reform, The Recovery of Confidence (1970), a plea for the restoration of moral values that some thought “sermonizing,” In Common Cause (1972), a slim volume outlining the purpose of the new public interest lobby, and Morale (1978), an exhortation to individual citizens to return to traditional values of justice, freedom, and human dignity. Gardner also wrote the book On Leadership, which was published in 1990.

The Third Career

Gardner had once stated that everyone should have three careers, and in late 1979 he began his third, forming Independent Sector, aimed at insuring “the survival of the non-profit sector” in the face of federal encroachment. In the same year he was appointed by President Carter to the Commission for a National Agenda, whose task was to offer recommendations to deal with the likely issues of the 1980s. In 1981 Gardner was named to yet another presidential panel by Ronald Reagan, the Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, designed to find ways to make up for federal program cuts.

Some saw Gardner moving toward conservatism in his “third career,” but there was consistency in his efforts to act in areas he felt had been vacated by the swing of the public policy pendulum. Also congruent with his earlier activities were Gardner’s willingness and ability to serve presidents of both parties.

Gardner is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and prestigious awards from the labor unions AFL-CIO and UAW and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is a fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education. In 1996 Gardner received the James Bryant Conant Award for outstanding contributions to education in the United States.

In 1994 Gardner became chairman of the board of the nonpartisan, Denver based National Civic League. The organization launched an Alliance for National Renewal, hoping to foster a universal ethic of volunteerism and stimulate cities to tackle their own problems. In 1995 after one year with Gardner as its guide, the Civic League had brought together more than 100 organizations that worked at community development in numerous ways.

In the mid 1990s Gardner served as a professor of public service at the Stanford Business School. Gardner remained an active, visible symbol of civic reform and the national quest for excellence.

Editor’s Note: The Appendix for “Conversations With and About Mike” contains transcripts for the recorded audio and video clips. To view the Audio Transcripts go to this page >