John Gardner was a true American hero.
He was a unique and extraordinary leader who pioneered the modern movement for citizen activism and fathered the modern movement for campaign finance reform to protect the integrity of our democracy.
Gardner died on Saturday, just three days after the dramatic campaign finance reform victory in the House of Representatives that has set the stage for fundamental reform of the federal campaign finance laws for the first time in more than 25 years.
On Thursday, I tried to get a message to him in California about the win. I'm not sure he ever received it, but it probably doesn't matter all that much. John Gardner knew he had set all of this in motion more than 30 years ago, when he first began educating the country on the corrupting dangers of big money in American politics.
Gardner was a Renaissance man -- a leader, a philosopher, an educator, a communicator, an author, an organizer, a role model, a mentor, a public servant and a citizen activist. He was an intelligence officer, a foundation president, a Cabinet member, an adviser to presidents and a movement leader.
He also was a creator, providing the ideas and inspiration for such public ventures as public television and the White House Fellows Program and founding such institutions as Common Cause and Independent Sector.
One of Gardner's founding principles for Common Cause was the notion that "everyone's organized but the people," and he set out to change that.
Gardner believed deeply in democracy. He believed in citizens getting involved, in being active in their local communities and nationally, and in shaping their own destinies. He spent decades working toward that end.
Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, said of John Gardner: "He was an unsung hero, someone the average man on the street wouldn't have heard of but whose influence touched almost every American."
Above all, John Gardner was a powerful moral force in our society. He was a man of remarkable vision, creativity, insight, optimism -- and fearless integrity. He never moved away from his values and principles, no matter what the personal cost might be.
When Common Cause got involved in the anti-Vietnam War effort in 1971 as its first major battle, Gardner, a registered Republican, lost a number of longtime friends over it. He was undaunted.
When Common Cause had to decide in 1972 whether to sue President Nixon's reelection committee for campaign finance violations, something unheard of at that time, he made the decision without a moment's hesitation. He was unfazed when, shortly afterward, Nixon's campaign lawyer wrote to the Internal Revenue Service asking the agency to revoke his new organization's tax status.
John Gardner was mentor to the world. Untold numbers of individuals had their lives shaped by him, through either personal contacts or his books, such as "Self-Renewal and Excellence."
Gardner hired me in 1971 as a lobbyist for Common Cause and, unknown to me, set my life on a 31-year journey to reform the nation's campaign finance laws. Twenty-four of those years were spent at Gardner's Common Cause, including 14 as its president from 1981 to 1995. Fortunately, Gardner taught me early on that fundamental reform is not for the short winded.
The current Enron scandal with its influence money implications and its unethical corporate practices brings into sharp focus what Gardner once wrote in his publication, "National Renewal":
"The identifying of values is a light preliminary exercise before the real and heroic task, which is to make the values live. . . . Moral, ethical or spiritual values come alive only when living men and women recreate the values for their time -- by living the faith, by caring, by doing. It is true of religion; it is true of democracy; it is true of personal ethical codes."
I always used to think of John Gardner as "a radical in pinstripes," a man who was made for the days of the Founding Fathers and surely would have been one of them if he had been there.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "The most important office in our democracy is that of private citizen."
John Gardner was the citizen of his era.
The writer was president of Common Cause from 1981 to 1995 and a John Gardner friend for more than 30 years.