On the eve of Election Day, here are some thoughts about John Gardner, founder of Common Cause, as remembered in a 40th anniversary speech by Bill Moyers. I hope the very good people who lose in tomorrow's balloting will keep up their fights, whether they are incumbents or challengers. They, especially, deserve our thanks for participating in our election process.
At his most eloquent, when he talked about the ‘rebirth of a nation’, he admitted that the notion might seem “wonderfully optimistic” but he quickly assured his audience that a successful rebirth of our country would involve severe labor pains. "We may howl with pain,” he said, "before we do what needs to be done.”
He also told us, “Don’t pray for the day when we finally solve our problems. Pray for freedom to continue working on the problems that the future will never cease to throw at us.”
I learned from him that the best way to live in the world is to imagine a more confident future and to get up every morning to do what you can to help bring it about. “Don’t let the vast superstructure of civilization mislead you,” he said, “Everything comes back to the talent and energy and sense of purpose of human beings.”
... LBJ appointed John to head H.E.W. on the very next day after announcing that he was sending ground troops to Vietnam. In the Rose Garden the president said to his new cabinet member, “Whatever happens in Vietnam, we’ll not fail to pursue the Great Society.” But two years later John went to the LBJ ranch in Texas to plead for larger appropriations for his programs. The president turned him down and instead cut even more from the budget as it was. Gardener responded with a muted anguish that pained the president. As they were about to get out of the car, LBJ put his arm around him and said, “Don’t worry, John. We’re going to end this damned war and then you’ll have all the money you want for education and health and everything else.”
It was not to be. In an emotional private meeting one year later, Gardner told the president he was resigning: “In an election year you deserve the total support of every cabinet member and a cabinet member who doesn’t think you should run shouldn’t be in the cabinet.” Face to face, he said: “I believe you can no longer pull the country together.”
That’s the kind of man he was. He gave up his position but not his principles. He left the government but not the fight. And he founded Common Cause because he didn't want to sit on the sidelines. "Everybody’s organized but the people," he said. "Now it’s the citizen’s turn.”