These remarks were delivered at a dinner in Washington commemorating the 40th anniversary of Common Cause on October 6, 2010.
Thank you for inviting me to join in this 40th anniversary of Common Cause. Your founder, John Gardner, profoundly influenced my life and I welcome this opportunity to share some memories of him.
When we met in 1965 John Gardner was already very wise and I was still very young. I never grew younger but he kept growing wiser. The chief of the New York Times bureau in Washington, Scotty Reston, drawing (I later learned) on Emerson, told me, “Take John as your mentor and you’ll see how to live the greatest number of good hours.”
He was right.
As we worked together – John as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and I as a White House Assistant – I came to know well the man who built meaning into his life because he saw no other way to achieve it. Meaning doesn’t come in the genes, he said—you compose it out of your own past, out of your own affections, out of the experience of human beings as it is passed on to you, out of the things you believe in, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there, he said: You are the only person who can put them together in the unique pattern that will be your life.
One of my White House colleagues said of him, “He thinks like a saint.” “No,” Lyndon Johnson said, “he thinks like a good Republican. They’re harder to find than saints. But one is all you need.”
John was the one.
And he and Lyndon Johnson were the right two at the right time. Johnson: the intense, impetuous, impatient Democrat. Gardner: the reflective, righteous and resolute Republican. Both were radical middle of the roaders, who believed in widening the road into a broad highway so more people could travel it. When John joined the cabinet in 1965, he told us: “What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities, disguised as insoluble problems.” He knew the score, and wasn’t intimidated by it. He wouldn’t be intimidated today in the midst of the largest special-interest-funded congressional campaign in our history. He would be outraged at all the dirty money pouring secretly into the political system, turning it into a sewer. And he would be engaged in trying to clean it up.
It was occasionally said that he was a romantic. After all, he had dropped out of Stanford intending to become a novelist, until he tried writing one. He got his PhD in psychology instead. He also enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II, and Marines are seldom duped by illusions. His parents had separated before his birth and he never forgot the brokenness of things. He knew how broken the world is, but he believed in trying to mend it. He wasn’t naïve about this. 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.”
One memorable summer evening we sat on the south lawn of the White House – just six of us: LBJ and Lady Bird, John and Aida Gardner, Judith and me, both of us barely thirty. I just listened – to the astute and wily politician who understood politics and to the agile and wise intellectual who understood policy. Both wanted the widest possible participation of the largest number of citizens in the affairs and fruits of democracy. However they arrived at it – and it must have had something to do with the rigors of their youth – they shared a philosophy that whatever things are good for some human beings are really good for all human beings – that the happy or good life is essentially the same for all: a satisfaction of the same needs inherent in human nature. In practice this meant acting on the conviction that what the richest parents in the country want for their children – the goods essential for life, liberty, and happiness – is what the poorest parents want for their children.
Looking back, I realize that in spirit they were social democrats, although no one used the term then. I am more convinced of this after reading the book Ill Fares the Land that the historian Tony Judt published before his untimely death this past August. Judt described a time when “the public” was no fiction and the word wasn’t even a term of opprobrium. Public schools, public libraries, public parks, public highways, public goods and services were the means of creating a fair society for people who weren’t rich. At its heart was an ethical compact without which society is a war of all against all and the free market for wolves becomes a slaughter for the lambs.
Guess where the historian Judt located the closest America came to that notion of social democracy? In Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Much of what was best in the legislation and social policy of the 20th century, he said, was social democracy in all but name.
We’ll never know what might have blossomed from that era if the relationship between these two men had not been orphaned by war. 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.”
Forty years later, here we are – that charge to us a presence in this room.
What might he think of the country today? I believe he would agree with Tony Judt: Ill Fares the Land. “The symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us,” Judt wrote. Bankrupt cities. Broken highways. Collapsing bridges. Failed Schools. In a succinct and compelling review of Judt’s work in the current issue of Harper’s magazine, Terry Eagleton – a professor at Notre Dame and the National University of Ireland – concludes that “much of what seems natural to us — privatization, inequalities, an obsession with wealth” — has emerged from the last three decades, and that public squalor is once again “the other face of private affluence.”
The social-democratic climate that Judt thought so promising was remarkable, he said, for three features: how unprecedented it was, how quickly it came to seem plain common sense, and how abruptly it vanished from sight around 1980. The Vietnam War was over but its repercussions played out in politics. The conservative movement once embodied in Barry Goldwater found its new hero in Ronald Reagan and launched a campaign to bring back radical laissez-faire, when there was no social contract and all but the privileged and powerful were left to forage on their own. Well-organized forces backed by wealthy right-wingers rushed in to bring it about. Inspired by the fabulist Ayn Rand, infatuated with “Austrian” economics, spouting bumper sticker quotes lifted from Milton Friedman, propelled by cascades of cash from corporate chieftains like Coors and Koch and ‘Neutron’ Jack Welch, and fortified by the pious prescriptions of fundamentalist political preachers, the right marched on Washington, and succeeded brilliantly. Freedom in America would come to mean the freedom of the rich to buy the government they wanted and to write the rules to their advantage, even if it meant leaving millions of Americans behind. Advocates of “limited government” in rhetoric only, they were never really opposed to government, only to one that wouldn’t tolerate their social Darwinism.
See for yourself. Read the literature. Start with “A Time for Truth,” the call to arms by Richard Nixon’s treasury secretary, William Simon, the Wall Street wheeler-dealer. He argued that “funds generated by business” would have to “rush by multimillions” into right-wing causes in order to uproot the institutions and the “heretical” morality of the New Deal. He called for an “alliance” between right-wing ideologues and “men of action in the capitalist world” to mount a “veritable crusade” against everything brought forth by the long struggle for a progressive America. It would mean, as Business Week noted at the time, “that some people will obviously have to do with less…It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.” But so be it.
A “bitter pill” was the least of it. This was class war ordered from the top down. Instead of creating a level playing field, government would become the agent of the powerful and privileged. Public institutions, laws and regulation, as well as the ideas, norms, and beliefs which aimed to protect the common good and helped to create America’s iconic middle class, would now be greatly weakened and increasingly vulnerable to attack. The Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow succinctly summed up the movement’s agenda: “The redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy and of power in favor of the powerful.”
But this was not what America was meant to be. America was not intended to be a country where the winner takes all. Our system of checks and balances – read The Federalist Papers –was meant to keep an equilibrium in how power works and for whom. The aristocrat De Tocqueville came here from France in the 1830s and marveled at the egalitarian spirit he found in the new country. As the economist Jeffrey Madrick reminds us, equitable access to public resources was the lifeblood of democracy.
Americans made primary schooling free to all because, as Isabel Sawhill and Sara McLanahn write in The Future of Children, the American ideal of a classless society was “one in which all children have a roughly equal chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they were born.” Debtors, especially the relative poor, were protected by state law against rich creditors. Government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land, and even supported squatters’ rights.
By the time I was a teenager, equal access to opportunity began to materialize for millions and upward mobility after World War II, aided and abetted by such government programs as the GI Bill, created the world’s largest and most envied middle class. Incomes of the bottom 80% grew faster than the incomes of the top 1%, and those at the bottom grew most rapidly of all. This, at a time when the super-rich were taxed at a rate of 91%. America was indeed becoming a shared project. Only four decades ago Robert Lampman, a key architect of anti-poverty programs, could argue that “the recent history of Western nations reveals an increasingly widespread adoption of the idea that substantial equality of social and economic conditions among individuals is a good thing.”
Then the financial class revolted. No one’s been more candid about it than the multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
John Gardner saw it coming. He foresaw what would happen to America’s egalitarian spirit if the excesses of money in politics were not curbed.
He would nod knowingly but sadly today at the report that “thirty zip-codes in America have become fabulously wealthy while whole urban and rural communities are languishing in unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, growing insecurity and fear.”
He would wince at reading The Economist, on the eve of President George W. Bush’s second inauguration – well before the great collapse four years later – warning that the United States “risks calcifying into a European-style, class-based society.”
He would be appalled by the political power exerted by a handful of financial titans not only to avoid the penalties that the ‘free market’ would have inflicted on them for their role in helping to wreck the economy, but to emerge, with taxpayer bailouts, to reap huge profits while 29 million unemployed and underemployed people struggle to make ends meet.
He would be sympathetic to the everyday people who turn out for Tea Party rallies to protest our failing institutions. Our institutions, after all, are failing, and why not oppose government if our political class has been bought off by the rich? I’ll wager, however, that he would regard the movement itself as a Trojan horse for its secret bankrollers.
And he would be shocked by the activist reactionary majority on the Supreme Court that has opened the floodgates for oligarchs and plutocrats to secretly buy our elections and consolidate their hold on the corporate state. One of the greatest of our Supreme Court justices, Louis Brandeis, warned that “you can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or democracy, but you cannot have both.” The pro-corporate Roberts majority looked at both options and declared, ‘OK. We’ll take the former.”
The founder of Common Cause was a prophet in seeing money as the dagger directed at the heart of democracy. Like his fellow Republican Teddy Roosevelt, he opposed the ‘naked robbery’ of the public’s trust. A century ago, in one of the most powerful speeches in American political history, Roosevelt said: “It is not a partisan issue; it is more than a political issue; it is a great moral issue. If we condone political theft, if we do not resent the kinds of wrong and injustice that injuriously affect the whole nation, not merely our democratic form of government but our civilization itself cannot endure.”
Democracy in America has been a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck. The most widely shared assumption of our journey as Americans has been the idea of progress, the belief that the present is ‘better’ than the past and things will keep getting better in the future. No matter what befalls us – we keep telling ourselves – ‘the system works.’
All bets are now off. The great American experiment in creating a different future together has come down to the worship of individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power, with both political parties cravenly subservient to Big Money. The result is an economy that no longer serves ordinary men and woman and their families. This, I believe, accounts for so much of the profound sense of betrayal in the country, for the despair about the future. As Gabriel says in James Weldon Johnson’s epic Green Pastures: “Everything that’s tied down is coming loose.” America as a shared project is shattered, leaving us increasingly isolated in our separate realities.
John Gardner would understand this dark reading of our gross national psychology. The workings of the human psyche were his field of study. But the Marine Corps, remember, was his finishing school, and Semper Fidelis his personal code. So I will close with his own words, as relevant today as ever:
We are treading the edge of a precipice here….There is a disconnection between the people and their leaders. Citizens do not trust their government. And a variety of polls indicate that this mistrust extends to corporations and the media. People do not feel they have must control of their lives, and the sense of impotence grows like a great life-endangering tumor. Civilizations die of disenchantment. If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart. We must never let anger, fashionable cynicism, or political partisanship blur our vision of this point.
We must not despair of the Republic.
There, fellow celebrants, is the call. The only way to defeat organized money is with organized people. Now it’s your turn.