Sneak Preview of “The John Gardner Factor” in a “President-Elect Biden” Era

"Conversations With and About Mike"
rick stamberger Tom Simon Working Dog Productions

John Gardner: Uncommon American (2001 PBS Documentary)

After reading the previous multimedia installment of the Mike Kirst Biography Project, John Fensterwald, Editor-At-Large of EdSource, California’s go-to publication for education news, emailed me to say: “Great stuff in your latest chapter. I had no idea about Mike’s relationship with John Gardner. I would have asked about that years ago. Congrats on eliciting all this good stuff.”

So the focus of the upcoming installment will be just that: Mike’s relationship with John Gardner!

John Gardner: A Personal Friend and Mentor

Mike referred to John Gardner as “sort of a father figure” several times in our interviews for this biography.

And the previous installment concluded with Mike’s long-time friend and colleague James Kelly emphasizing that “John Gardner was like a second father to Wendy (Mike’s wife), and then Gardner’s affection for Wendy transferred to and embraced Mike. Kelly added, “That’s another dimension to Mike; he had this unbelievably wise man, John Gardner, as a personal friend and mentor.”

A must-watch to truly understand why John Gardner is the “Uncommon American”

One quick and engaging way to learn a bit about John Gardner, as well as to begin to understand his influence on Mike, is to watch the opening of the 2001 PBS documentary, John Gardner: Uncommon American.

First, we hear from General Colin Powell:

“John Gardner is a great American who taught Americans leadership and civic responsibility for his entire life.”

Richard Dreyfuss adds, “This is high praise for a man of whom you may know little or nothing at all.”

Then an unnamed woman wonders “…why John Gardner is not a household name.”

Others quickly chime in to build on Powell’s praise: Fred Wertheimer (former President of Common Cause, founded by Gardner), Ramona Edelin (former President of the Urban Coalition, also founded by Gardner), and Bill Bradley (former U.S. Senator and basketball legend):

Wertheimer: “Well, he never turned the camera on himself.” Edelin: “Yes, he was the glue, not the glitz!” Bradley: “Maybe we know so little about him because it has taken PBS this long to do a film about him….”

We might say the same about Mike Kirst:

  • “He does not turn the camera on himself.”
  • “He is the glue, not the glitz.”
  • “He has taught and lived civic responsibility his entire life.”

And to respond to Bill Bradley: that’s the purpose of this biography project—to “turn the camera” on Mike Kirst.

For now, as a preview to the next installment, let’s watch and listen in:

Video Clip 1: The “Uncommon American” Opening Video Montage about John Gardner  

Ramona Edlin, past president of the Urban Coalition

The starting place for a crucial relationship and influence on Mike Kirst

This documentary was filmed less than two years before John Gardner’s death in the Stanford University faculty home that Wendy Kirst, as a professional real estate agent, had helped him purchase and renovate. In his years there, John and his wife Aida lived as close neighbors to Mike and Wendy Kirst, leading to holiday and birthday celebrations at each other’s homes. These were emeriti years for Gardner at Stanford, and Mike’s career was just taking off.

The Mike Kirst Biography Project BannerThis installment traces the development of this crucial relationship and its influence on Mike. Similar to the PBS documentary, this installment uses clips from key individuals to help us understand Mike as an “uncommon academic.”

And now to “The Uncommon Academic”

We will hear in this installment, for instance, this short observation about Mike from Checker Finn, one of America’s most outspoken education commentators and a noted school reformer, university scholar, and public servant,  who is currently serving as President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and formerly served as the Legislative Director for U.S. Senator Daniel P. Moynihan.

Let’s have a quick listen:

Audio Clip 1:  Finn on one of Mike’s “Distinguishing Characteristics”

Finn observes that across his decades of education policy experience, Mike Kirst’s having “a foot in the academic world and a foot in the policy world” (like Senator Moynihan, Henry Kissinger, “and a handful of others—but not a very big handful”) is “a distinguishing characteristic” of Mike’s…adding “and not that common of one.”

Via Finn and others in this installment, we’ll also come to understand some of the notable complexities of having a foot in both these worlds, as both Mike and Gardner experienced.

A Very Timely Conversation

A fun, note-worthy, and most timely way to conclude this “sneak preview” is to enjoy what the person who has most recently led President-Elect Biden’s education transition team has to say about the still energetic, action-oriented, yet unpretentious nature of Mike’s leadership. 

Let’s then enjoy  Linda Darling-Hammond, current President of California’s State Board of Education, offering us a taste of her experiences with Mike and what in her view makes him an “uncommon academic.”

Audio Clip 2:   Mike and Linda’s “Uncommon” Hour-long “Power Walks”

California Education State Board President

Linda Darling-Hammond, California Education State Board President. (Photo courtesy of EdSource; photo by Janet Weeks/SBE)

You may have read in Friday’s (11/8/2020) New York Times that Darling-Hammond just pulled herself out of possible consideration to serve as President-Elect Biden’s Secretary of Education, saying that “My commitment to Gov. Newsom and the California [education] agenda that we are pursuing through the State Board of Education are paramount to me.”

This was the agenda Mike put into motion with Governor Brown for the eight years prior to the start of Linda’s term as the board’s president.

An Impressive Group of People In Our Next Installment

In addition to Finn and Darling-Hammond, we hear in the upcoming “John Gardner Factor” installment of course from Mike himself, and from his wife Wendy Kirst, and from others:

  • James Guthrie: co-founder with Mike and Gerald Hayward in 1982–83 of what was to become the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) think-tank which is still active today.
  • David Rattray: an influential activist and Los Angeles businessman who worked behind the scenes with Mike, Linda Darling-Hammond, and others developing for Governor Brown reforms reshaping the funding and governing of American schools in California and beyond.
  • Andrea Venezia: Executive Director of the Education Insights Center (EdInsights) at California State University, Sacramento who co-authored with Mike From High School to College: Improving Opportunities for Success in Postsecondary Education.
  • Trish Boyd Williams: former Executive Director at EdSource who worked with Mike during his last eight-year tenure first as California’s State Board of Ed Vice-Chair, as well as a key charter liaison for the board, and then who also led the charge for the board’s adoption of California’s first-ever model K–12 computer science standards.

The full installment also includes additional video footage from the Gardner documentary and audio clips from a Stanford oral history project about him to help illuminate the influences of the uncommon American on the uncommon academic.

So, stay tuned!!

Dick Jung