Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias The late John Gardner � the scholar, author, Cabinet member and founder of Common Cause � would probably be standing at a podium, beating his chest to get our attention, if he were still with us.

Gardner, who died last February, led an extraordinary life.

A psychologist by training, a teacher by profession, he also had a remarkable ability to recognize challenges and organize responses to them. As secretary of health, education and welfare in the Johnson administration, he set up the programs for both Medicare and the first large-scale federal aid to education.

Almost as a sideline, he sponsored the creation of the public television network and the White House Fellows program, the training ground for such leaders as Colin Powell and Henry Cisneros. His Common Cause proved to be the most enduring and effective lobby for government ethics and campaign finance reform.

One passage of Gardner�s struck me as being particularly important in this season, when we (supposedly) are to exercise our cherished right to vote in a public election.

It was one of many reminders Gardner issued over the course of his long life that the gift of freedom comes with a price.

�I keep running into highly capable potential leaders all over this country who literally never give a thought to the well-being of their community,� he said. �And I keep wondering who gave them permission to stand aside! I�m asking you to issue a wake up call to those people � a bugle call right in their ear. And I want you to tell them that this nation could die of comfortable indifference to the problems that only citizens can solve. Tell them that.�

Gardner wrote those words long before the cooking-the-books spectacle of highly paid corporate officers and their supposedly independent auditors shook public confidence in our economic system.

Their failings are echoed by the politicians who buy popularity with tax cuts and special-interest subsidies, while postponing action on important public needs. And they are reflected in journalism by people who put profits and ratings above their obligation to provide substantive information and analysis of public issues.

As far back as 1961, when the Marine Corps veteran was president of the Carnegie Corp., Gardner diagnosed the challenge to our leadership.

In a small book titled Excellence, he argued that the great advantage this country gains from its widely dispersed leadership circles, with entrance based largely on talent, merit and effort, has an offsetting cost. Often, he said, those who exercise power in this pluralistic society �lack a sense of their role as leaders, a sense of the obligations which they have incurred as a result of the eminence they have achieved ? Or may well recognize their own leadership role with respect to their own special segment of the community but be unaware of their responsibility to the larger community.

�That isn�t good enough,� Gardner wrote. �The influential citizen � whether he is a farmer or banker or labor leader or professor or lawyer � cannot evade his responsibility to the larger community.�

And then these words, which ought to be framed on the wall of every person who has power or influence: �Leaders, even in a democracy, must lead. If our citizens are to recapture the sense of mission which survival demands, then our leaders at every level must have the capacity and vision to call it out. It is hard to expect an upsurge of devotion to the common good in response to leaders who lack the moral depth to expect or understand such devotion, or the courage to evoke it, or the stature to merit the response which follows.

�In short, the varied leadership of our society must come to recognize that one of the great functions of leaders is to help a society to achieve the best that is in it.�

Gardner also wrote, �Most Americans welcome the voice that lifts them out of themselves. They want to be better people. They want to help make this a better country. When the American spirit awakens, it transforms worlds. But it does not awaken without a challenge.�

That is a message worth pondering as election day nears. Think you will have met your civic duty when you cast your ballot Nov. 5?

Think again.

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