Philip M. Stern, 66, a Washington philanthropist and author whose books included stinging criticisms of congressional campaign financing, the tax code, the legal profession and poverty amid the white marble monuments of Washington, died of brain cancer June 1 at George Washington University Hospital.
Mr. Stern also was a former Democratic Party activist who had served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Kennedy administration. During the 1950s, he was a campaign assistant to Democratic presidential nominee Adlai E. Stevenson, an aide to Rep. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and Sen. Paul H. Douglas (D-Ill.) and director of research for the Democratic National Committee.
As a member of the D.C. delegation to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he nominated Channing E. Phillips for president, the first black man to be nominated at a major party convention.
Mr. Stern was a man of the highest Establishment credentials, and independently wealthy, but he spent much of his life fighting the status quo. As director of family philanthropic foundations, he awarded grants to organizations and individuals trying to bring about social change. "I like to find out-of-the-way people who don't have access to the foundation world," Mr. Stern once said. "I also like to try inventing new ways of solving problems."
Among the recipients of his foundation grants was Seymour Hersh, who was given money in 1969 to investigate reports of a massacre of South Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers at the village of Mylai. Hersh's stories on the massacre shocked the nation and the world. Other Stern grantees have included a group of students at Washington's Eastern High School who used the money to organize their own classes in black history in the late 1960s and early 1970s; drug treatment centers; a switchboard for runaways; free medical clinics; and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
More recent grantees include the Government Accountability Project, which protects whistleblowers in government and business; Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which campaigned for freedom and openness in the Teamsters Union; the Center for Science in Public Interest, which promoted labeling accuracy in health foods; and the Women's Legal Defense Fund. Last year, the Stern Family Fund distributed about $650,000 in philanthropic grants, according to Betsy Taylor, its executive director.
"Phil always wanted to help the people who didn't have power," Taylor said. "He wanted to make the U.S. political and economic system more equitable. And he never wanted to stop being irreverent."
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader called Mr. Stern the "most creative, versatile and persistent philanthropist of our generation."
From his father and maternal grandfather, Mr. Stern not only inherited his fortune, but a family tradition of philanthropy. His grandfather was Julius Rosenwald, the former chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co. whose Rosenwald Foundation gave away $22 million in a 16-year period, primarily to build schools in the South for black students. His father, Edgar Stern, was one of the youngest presidents of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange at the age of 27. He gave each of his three children money to start their own foundations.
Philip Stern was born in New York City and reared in New Orleans. He served in the Navy as a supply and communications officer in the Pacific during World War II, then graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University.
He was a reporter and editorial writer for the New Orleans Item newspaper after college, then came to Washington in 1949 on a Rockefeller Fellowship, working in the Department of the Interior and the State Department.
He remained in Washington to work on Capitol Hill and for the Democratic Party until 1957 when he acquired the Arlington Sun newspaper with a group of associates. The associates included George Ball, who later served as undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and Clayton Fritchey, a syndicated newspaper columnist who later served as a special assistant to Adlai Stevenson when Stevenson was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
They renamed the paper the Northern Virginia Sun, and for four years before his appointment to the State Department, Mr. Stern was its editor and, for a time, its publisher. Eventually they sold the paper.
For the better part of the last quarter century, Mr. Stern's primary activity had been writing books, but he also learned to fly an airplane and play the recorder, and he did silk-screening. He began collecting sculpture and art. Rarely, if ever, did he display any interest in increasing his fortune, and he sometimes seemed ambivalent about his wealth.
"Being rich," he told the Washington Star magazine in 1970, "is really not very different from having a cleft palate or green hair."
He worked out of an office near Dupont Circle and got around town on a motorscooter, a blue knapsack often slung over his shoulder. In 1984, he founded Citizens Against PACs, a bipartisan group concerned about the growing influence of political action committees in congressional elections.
His most recent book, "The Best Congress Money Can Buy," (1988) was about the influence of PACs on Capitol Hill as a result of their campaign contributions, and also a study of the high cost of running for elective office. Mr. Stern sent complimentary copies of the book to members of the House and Senate, and he included in each a one dollar bill as a book marker. Many members of Congress angrily returned the books and the markers.
Other books included "The Great Treasury Raid," (1962) an attack on the tax laws that permitted many giant corporations to pay less in taxes than their lowest-paid employees; "The Shame of a Nation," (1965) essays and photographs on poverty in juxtaposition with the monuments of Washington; and "The Oppenheimer Case," a meticulous account of the anti-communist hysteria that led to the revocation of the security clearance for atomic bomb physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
In 1980, Mr. Stern wrote "Lawyers on Trial," in which he castigated what he called "the Lawyers Monopoly" for charging excessive fees for routine legal work such as probating an estate or handling real estate transactions. In many such cases, Mr. Stern noted, fees are based on a percentage of the estate or sale and have no relationship to the amount of work involved.
He spent several months in 1974 as a special investigative reporter on the life insurance industry for The Washington Post, and he also had written for the New York Times Magazine and for Harper's and Atlantic magazines. He had done commentary for "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio.
His marriage to Helen B. Stern ended in divorce.
Survivors include his companion, Susan Willens of Washington; five children, Michael Stern of New York, Holly Nozuka of Manhasset, N.Y., Eve Stern of Cambridge, Mass., and Henry and David Stern, both of Washington; a brother, Edgar, of Washington state; and eight grandchildren.