Taming the 'Strange Monster' of Government
John W. Gardner, the visionary public servant and author, looked at the state of the federal government in 1957 and found it wanting. Then president of the Carnegie Corporation, he worried that the increasing complexity of the federal government had made it "some kind of strange monster, beyond our comprehension and beyond our sympathies."
He put these thoughts in a memo, hoping other foundations would join him in starting a program to remedy this situation. His idea was to bring young men and young women of "intelligence, character, special talents, and promise" into the heart of national government. He believed such a program would create "a reservoir of able men and women with more than ordinary comprehension of government and more than ordinary willingness to serve."
Like many great ideas, Gardner's initially went nowhere. His unanswered memo sat in a file until the summer of 1964, when Youth for Goldwater groups sprang up on college campuses across the country. Unsettled by the specter of young people who seemed to hate and distrust the government, Gardner dusted off his memo and sent it to the office of President Lyndon Johnson as a proposal for a "National Service Plan."
Gardner suggested that 100 of "the ablest and most highly motivated young men and women in the nation" be selected for a 15-month period of service with the government, with selection standards "so high that this would be as impressive an honor as a young person could win." The winning candidates would have meaningful work assignment, come together for weekly seminars to explore "the big picture" issues of governing, and attend a 10-day retreat in the middle of their experience to discuss leadership principles.
Gardner was not the only one moved to write the president about the student Goldwater movement. The young president of the University of North Carolina, William Friday, suggested that the president reach out to student leaders with an invitation to the White House. A memo to the president forwarded Friday's concern and pointed out that "a sizable part of this [student] population does not feel as great a sense of rapport with the Administration as do other age groups." The memo also included a short version of Gardner's proposal to the memo - along with the note that Gardner's Carnegie Foundation might be willing to fund a three-year pilot of his proposed program to bring aspiring leaders into the halls of government.
President Johnson's response was an immediate and enthusiastic go-ahead. Both he and Lady Bird added their own notes to the proposal, suggesting that these young leaders work in the highest reaches of government. From the proposed 100, the president reduced the number to 15 - one for each of 10 cabinet officers, one for the vice-president, and for in the Office of the President. The First Lady suggested the name "White House Fellows."
Just two weeks later, on October 3, 1964, President Johnson announced the creation of the White House Fellow Program through Executive order 11183. "A genuinely free society cannot be a spectator society," he told the group of 250 college students gathered at the White House that day. "A hundred years from now, when historians look back on this administration, I hope very much they will be able to say: There, once again, was an era when the young men and women of America and their government belonged to each other - belonged to each other in fact and in spirit."
With the executive order in place, President Johnson created a committee to select the first group of fellows, headed by David Rockefeller. Said Rockefeller at the time, "I haven't often been asked by presidents to do things. I guess I felt that his request was a command, and so I agreed to serve." He was joined on the committee a group of highly esteemed and bipartisan individuals including university presidents, newspaper editors and federal government leaders and, of course, John Gardner.
The selection committee defined its mission with an impassioned challenge. "In this country today, we produce a great number of skilled professionals. But too few of this intellectual elite provide the society with statesmanlike leadership and guidance in public affairs," they wrote. "If the sparsely settled American colonies of the late 18th century could produce Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Monroe, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and others of superlative talent, breadth and statesmanship, should we not be able to produce in this generation ten times that number?"
The "raw material," they contended, was still there. What potential young leaders needed was "personal involvement in the leadership of society" to bring that potential to life. That first class of 15 fellows reported to Washington in September, 1965, and since then, 642 superbly qualified young Americans representing every reach of our society have served nine presidents, serving alongside senior leaders in the executive branch and learning from one another in an education program, meeting in off-the-record sessions with leaders from every aspect of American life two or three times a week.
On the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the White House Fellows Program, John Gardner noted: "Americans have always been great dreamers and willing experimenters. President Johnson seized the dream of the White House Fellowships, and every president since has warmly supported it. Like American society itself, this experiment in leadership development has no foreseeable end. But at this point . . . it is clear that the experiment and dream are thriving." Today, some 45 years after that dream and experiment were announced by President Johnson, we find ourselves once again facing the complexities of the federal government in a vastly changed national security environment from the Cold War that is conditioned by the overwhelming rapidity of change in the information age. There is distrust of public leadership and government bodies in general. Young people are once again alienated from public service. And John Gardner's and President Johnson's dream and experiment for involving potential leaders in learning about governance at the highest levels are more relevant than ever.
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