Public Advocate

Gardner’s resignation in 1968 was followed a few weeks later by President Johnson’s own surprise announcement that he would not run again for President. The Tet offensive was underway and it was increasingly clear that the US would not be able to “win” the war in Vietnam.

In April 1967, Gardner had said: "It will be a sad end to a great enterprise if the epitaph for our society turns out to read: 'All the best people bemoaned the quality of leadership, but none sought to lead.' "

Urban Coalition

Leaving HEW, Gardner immediately turned his attention to the crisis in America’s cities, becoming chairman and CEO of the National Urban Coalition. The Coalition brought together leaders from organized labor, industry, government, religious and civil rights groups to tackle the root causes of urban decay and despair. Yet the assassinations of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in April and June, respectively, of 1968 heaped fuel onto the fires of despair already raging in America’s cities. Gardner felt he needed to take another path.

Oral History with Fred Wertheimer

Fred Wertheimer, legislative director at Common Cause, reflects on Gardner's work there and at the Urban Coalition, crediting him with creating the modern campaign finance reform movement.

Listen from 46:06 to 48:53

I kept running into real ailments of government, shortcomings of government, shortcomings of the process of government, and concluded that we needed attention to government by citizens... there wasn't much of a voice for the common good, you know: how do we make this system work, how do we make this city a better city?

John Gardner, Oral History at Claremont Graduate University, 1991

Common Cause

In 1970, Gardner founded nonpartisan Common Cause in an effort to mobilize American citizens to help take control of what felt like a nation completely out of control. As he famously said: “Everybody’s organized but the people. Now it’s the citizens’ turn.” Common Cause took on as signature issues ending the war in Vietnam and lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. Government transparency and accountability, including the corrupting influence of campaign finance, became it most visible priorities. Gardner stepped down as Chair in 1978.

Senator Ted Kennedy and John W. Gardner, 1975
John W. Gardner at a Common Cause event
John W. Gardner : Common Cause

As president of Common Cause, Gardner participated in fundraising events and meetings with civic leaders and politicians, including Senator Edward Kennedy in March 1975 (upper left).

Memoirs: Common Cause

Listen to Gardner reflect on his work at Common Cause

Independent Sector

In 1980, Gardner joined Brian O’Connell in co-founding Independent Sector (IS), which merged the National Council of Philanthropy and the Coalition of National Voluntary Organizations. The new organization represents the entire philanthropic sector, as well as the nonprofits that seek support from the sector. IS also focuses on ethics and leadership, topics that had engaged Gardner for his entire career and became a primary focus after stepping down from chairing IS.

Gardner and Presidents

Even after Gardner had stepped away from the political world, he continued to advise US presidents and others in the political elite for the remainder of his lifetime.

Gardner with George H.W. Bush, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter, and Gerald R. Ford

Listen to Gardner share his memories of presidents and politicians

George H.W. Bush and John W. Gardner
John W. Gardner memoirs : Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter; Bobby Kennedy. tape B
John W. Gardner, Rosalynn Carter, and Jimmy Carter
John W. Gardner memoirs : Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton. tape C
Gerald Ford and John W. Gardner
Presidents Reagan, Bush, & Clinton : Topics from John W. Gardner Memoirs

Read John Gardner's Oral History interview at the Claremont Graduate University conducted in 1991 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.