John W. Gardner, 89, a psychologist by training who served as secretary of health, education and welfare in the Johnson administration before going on to create the citizens' lobby Common Cause, died Feb. 16 at his home on the campus of Stanford University. He had prostate cancer.
Dr. Gardner, a consulting professor at Stanford since 1989, served in the Marine Corps during World War II and was a psychology professor before joining Carnegie Corp. in 1946. He served as president of the corporation and of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching from 1955 until 1965.
He then served as HEW secretary until resigning in 1968. After two years as head of the National Urban Coalition, he founded Common Cause in 1970 and served as its chairman until retiring in 1977. Three years later, he co-founded the Independent Sector, an organization that supported volunteerism. From 1994 until 1996, he chaired the National Civic League.
Dr. Gardner, a Republican, was a highly respected behind-the-scenes authority on education issues when President Lyndon B. Johnson tapped him to take over HEW, a department that had more than 100,000 employees and one for which Johnson, he of "the Great Society," had ambitious plans.
At HEW, Dr. Gardner served as midwife of the new Medicare program, was credited with playing a pivotal role in enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and presided over passage of the landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He also oversaw the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
But despite his enthusiasm in leading Great Society fights for programs dealing with education, poverty and health, he resigned from the Cabinet in 1968. It was reported that he could no longer support the Johnson administration, and after leaving the Cabinet, he spoke out against the war in Vietnam.
In 1970, he took on a role for which he will probably be better remembered than his Cabinet career. Less than six months after announcing the founding of Common Cause, the citizens' advocacy group had signed up more than 100,000 members. When he stepped down, it boasted a membership of 253,000.
Under his leadership, the organization focused on influencing the process of government itself and came to be considered by some as the most influential lobby in Washington. Common Cause has been credited with having had a major impact on early laws regulating campaign contributions: It has championed the public financing of presidential elections and fought for legislation involving ethics, conflict of interest and financial disclosures, as well as for restrictions on lobbying.
Common Cause workers also catalogued information that became available under new Freedom of Information acts, determining who contributed what to whom in political races. The seemingly endless compilations of numbers found a fascinated audience among journalists, lobbyists and politicians.
Although Common Cause became a model for other successful lobbying organizations, it was not without its detractors. Many politicians and more than a few others detected just a little too much of a holier-than-thou attitude and pointed out that the "citizens" lobby did not really represent a broad cross-section of the population.
The Washington Post's David Broder pointed out that "Common Cause is anything but common folks." T.R. Reid, writing in The Post in 1977, maintained that Common Cause was "an elite group of upper-income, highly educated, liberal suburbanites" and that there was "substantial overlap in membership with such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the environment-minded Sierra Club."
But the charges, which Dr. Gardner largely admitted with grace and humor, did not detract from his accomplishments or those of Common Cause.
Regarding Dr. Gardner and Common Cause, the organization's current president, Scott Harshbarger, has said: "When Americans attend open meetings or read their government's documents, or take part in our battered but resilient public finance system for presidential elections, there is a memorial to John Gardner. When we turn on public television, or when government ensures no senior or poor person goes without health care, we take part in programs John Gardner initiated."
Dr. Gardner, who was born in Los Angeles, was a 1935 psychology graduate of Stanford University. He received a psychology doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1938, and later that year, he became a psychology professor at Connecticut College for Women.
After joining Carnegie Corp., he worked on issues involving the quality of education of the growing baby boom generation and education issues in a changing world.
These ranged from launching experiments using television in the classroom to helping establish the first Russian research center at Harvard University.
He also spent seven years fighting to establish what became the White House Fellows program to provide advanced training at the very pinnacle of government to budding political scientists, public administrators and other young officials. Previous White House fellows include Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, former housing secretary Henry G. Cisneros and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
In addition to his teaching and administrative work, Dr. Gardner wrote at least seven books, and he edited "To Turn the Tide," a collection of the speeches and papers of President John F. Kennedy.
Over the years, Dr. Gardner served as a consultant to various government agencies and sat on corporate boards.
His awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Dr. Gardner's survivors include his wife of 67 years, the former Aida Marroquin, of Stanford; two children; a brother; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.