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The Ultimate Commencement Speech

ISSUE:  Winter 1979
Morale. By John Gardner. Norton. $7.95.
American Reformers, 1815—1860. by Ronald G. Walters. Hill and Wang. $10.95.

REMEMBER, if you can, the last graduation ceremony you went to. Remember the heat, the glare, the bugs buzzing around your head, the babies crying. And— think hard now—remember the moment—the instant, really, before reason reasserted itself—when the paralyzing thought came into your head that the commencement speech literally would never end, that you had entered the Twilight Zone or someplace, and that listening to this speech was your fate for all eternity.

This is the secret terror of many people I know, and for them I have bad news: the speech has been written. It is called Morale, it is 158 pages long, and its author is John Gardner.

Morale is hard to summarize without seeming to caricature it unfairly. Were I to do so, you would think my examples extreme, my purpose facetious. To avoid this, I offer five chapter titles, the subheadings from yet another chapter, and a complete paragraph—all of them chosen from the book by methods so random as to satisfy even the most fastidious statistician. You can repeat the experiment yourself. Here are my results:

Chapter titles: “Regeneration,” “Options Unlimited,” “A New Vision,” “Wholeness,” “The Future of Freedom.”

Subheads (from chapter 4): “The Unknowable Future,” “A System That Evolves,” “The Lifeline of the Race,” “Continuities of the Spirit.”

The paragraph (from page 113): “We are not, after all, strangers to this planet. It has been our home for eons. It has had much to do with shaping us, and we have had so much to do with shaping it. It is hard to think of ourselves as in any way separable from it. We have within ourselves the elements of the earth and its atmosphere. The earth is the kind of planet it is, in part, because of the biosphere of which we are an ingredient.”

I concede that Gardner nowhere says, “The future lies ahead” or even asks “The Crisis in Values: Threat or Menace?”, but you get the drift.Morale is a collection of platitudes, cautionary words, quotations from the ancients, and moderate exhortations. As the title suggests, its themes are a) don’t give way to despair in these parlous times, yet b) don’t go overboard: avoid zealotry and irresponsibility at all costs. These unsurprising points are “argued” almost entirely by endless repetition.

Not only has Gardner written the ultimate commencement speech, but there is a very good chance you actually will hear it, for Gardner is also the quintessential commencement speaker. In Who’s Who, where most people who have honorary degrees spell them out in full, Gardner simply enters “hon.degrees from various colls., univs.” This is the ultimate in modern American one-upmanship, for nothing so reassures a person that he has “made it” in this country as an invitation to be honorarily hooded at a graduation ceremony.

That success in America should go hand in hand with blandness nowadays is not, as one might hope, an anomaly. As Nicholas Lemann has argued, “America today is no longer a nation where success means doing something new. It means filling some already existing role, being somebody important,” Progress on the road to the top is measured not, as in bygone days, by enterprises built (Henry Ford), barriers conquered (Charles Lindbergh), frontiers explored (Richard Byrd), or products invented (Thomas Edison). Instead, one rises by accumulating credentials from already established institutions—advanced degrees, high government positions, foundation presidencies, chairmanships of presidential commissions, and so on. Lemann, in an influential Washington Monthly article called “Success in America,” illustrated this by comparing the cabinets of Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter. He found that while Roosevelt’s department heads almost all had become successful by starting new enterprises, Carter’s had risen by occupying successively more prominent positions in settled and prestigious institutions,

Gardner’s 66-year life, honorary degrees aside, is a model of how this journey to success is now made. Gardner picked up his first credential, a doctorate in psychology (Dissertation: “Levels of Aspiration”), at Stanford. After a few years of teaching at two New England women’s colleges, he joined the war effort.Morale’s book jacket describes Gardner as a “Marine Corps officer,” but don’t let the connotations throw you—he was a desk-bound administrator who ended up at the Office of Strategic Services. There he met and impressed someone with contacts at the Carnegie Foundation; he started work there at the war’s end.

Gardner rose swiftly to the top at Carnegie, a place where his moderation, prudence, and responsibility—words which, along with “patrician,” invariably are used to describe him— stood him in good stead. He wrote Morale’s equally bland predecessors, Excellence and Self-Renewal; but with an eye on higher places, he also edited a collection of President Kennedy’s speeches, Several Kennedy task forces and advisory commissions later, Gardner was named to head the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He resigned without audible protest in January 1968, pleasing Lyndon Johnson yet somehow also pleasing antiwar liberals, who were sure that he was one of them. The former’s support was especially helpful during Gardner’s subsequent brief tenure as head of the Urban Coalition.

I won’t tire you by listing any of the other credentials Gardner had acquired by this time; suffice it so say that he was on all the right boards of trustees and in all the right clubs. He was, in fact, the bland embodiment of Establishment success.

But he had nothing to do. Elective office was out of the question (Gardner, for all his influence at the top of the social and political ladder, had no base at the bottom), as was high appointive office (Richard Nixon was president). So Gardner decided to enter the reform business, now respectable as a result of the Vietnam war. In 1970, with financial help from a few friends (John D. Rockefeller III and Norton Simon, among them), he launched a new organization called Common Cause. White, upper-middle-class recipients of Gardner’s direct-mail appeal responded by the tens of thousands and, within a year or so, Common Cause had emerged as America’s most prominent reform organization and Gardner as our leading reformer.

If success and blandness seem a strange combination to those of us who think of achievement in terms of new trails blazed rather than straight and narrow ones followed, how much more odd it is to see these qualities associated with what is nominally a movement for change.”Having risen in large and stable institutions,” Lemann argues, today’s successful people “have acquired a vested interest in the way things are, and major changes can never seem sensible.”

Not surprisingly, Common Cause turned out to be as “sensible” as Gardner himself, taking as its targets such mundane things as election finance, congressional ethics, campaign standards, and the confirmation process for presidential nominees. At various times, it has clamped down on state affiliates that were getting into bolder ventures. Given the extraordinary climate for change created by Vietnam and Watergate, it is hardly unfair to describe Common Cause’s reform ambitions as modest, even—let’s stick to the word—bland. But such they had to be, given the organization’s (modest, prudent, responsible, patrician) founder.

I don’t mean to pick on Gardner. He is, I am certain, as decent a man as everyone says he is, and my quarrel isn’t with him personally. But shouldn’t alarm bells be going off somewhere when success, blandness, and reform all get caught up together in such a way that those who are in the most advantageous positions to plump for change in the American system are those who have benefited from that system the most? Foxes guarding henhouses is not quite the analogy I am looking for—sleepy watchdogs is more like it.

What has me on this high horse is Ronald Walters’s excellent American Reformers, 1815—1860.Being a child of the postwar era, I had almost forgotten that American reform once had represented something more than the efforts of distinguished men to tinker with the system that had been so good to them. Walters reminds us otherwise. The abolitionists, prohibitionists, pacifists, communitarians, and school and prison reformers of the antebellum period were not members of society’s more successful classes—far from it. Nor were they bland in their goals (which were nothing less than the creation of a perfect society) or methods (can you imagine a William Lloyd Garrison or Wendell Phillips being invited to give a commencement speech?) Yet they generated “the most fervent and diverse outburst of reform energy in American history.” It is hard to think of a single important social institution that escaped their zealous attention.

Other modern historians, accustomed perhaps to reformers in the Gardner mold, have had little good to say about his 19th-century predecessors. At times their antebellum perfectionism has been portrayed as merely comical, a characterization which certainly is true in part.”They seem quaint,” concedes Walters, “for their follies, their na!vet6 about evil, and their hostility to sex, drink, and rich food.” During the final 46 years of her life, for example, a New England woman named Mary Cove Nichols “would write fiction, be divorced, be drawn to communitarianism, advocate free love, advocate chastity, participate in stances, become a Catholic, and claim the power to heal” as a “water-cure evangelist.” She was hardly representative, but neither was she singular.

But a more serious charge against the antebellum crusaders is that they were bad reformers largely because they were not successful in their personal lives. David Donald, noting in Lincoln Reconsidered that the typical abolitionist leader was of rural New England stock in an age when urban commerce was ascending, argued that he and his mates turned to reform because “agitation allowed the only chance for personal and social self-fulfillment.” Altruism? Nonsense; these were people desperate for something to do.

Walters’s answer to this is nearly correct: So what? “It does not demean reform to say that it did a great deal for reformers. It was no small blessing for individuals to be able to put their lives in order and do some good in the process.” And, in fact, the antebellum reformers did a great deal of good; the abolition of slavery and the establishment of the public school system are merely representative of their achievements. Even their failures, especially the attempts to establish Utopian communities, were the failures of those who acted boldly and risked much. I can’t imagine them worrying about how to get the Senate more involved in the conformation of presidential nominees; after all, there was a new world to be built.

I say Walters is only nearly correct, because I would take his answer even a step further; Who but society’s losers are best qualified to challenge the status quo? It is they who are pinched most painfully by its imperfections and, consequently, they whom one would expect to be in the best position to diagnose its ills and prescribe remedies. To be sure, the antebellum reformers worried about their own status in a newly industrialized America. As a consequence, though, they saw and embraced the concerns of other, less articulate groups who also were being hurt. They were zealous, imprudent, and highly irresponsible by modern reform standards. But they sure as hell made some teacups rattle.


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