History of the Founding of the White House Fellows Program

“Freedom and responsibility, liberty and duty. That’s the deal.” John Gardner, in one short phrase, captured the essence of the White House Fellows Program, the nation’s most prestigious leadership program.

Executive Order 11183 established the White House Fellows Program on October 3, 1964. The idea behind the White House Fellowship Program was not new. Indeed, in 1957, John Gardner, then President of the Carnegie Corporation, was concerned 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 his thoughts in a memo hoping to persuade other foundations to join him in starting a program to identify and expose young men and young women of “intelligence, character, special talents, and promise” to the nation’s government,” believing that 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.” Most importantly, Gardner believed that the national consciousness they acquired in Washington would increase their value as citizens and community leaders.

Gardner’s idea went nowhere with other foundation leaders, and he put the memo in a file, where it sat until the summer of 1964 that was marked by the growth of Youth for Goldwater organizations on college campuses across the country. Within a week after the republican convention ended, he dusted off his memo and sent it to the President’s special consultant, historian Eric Goldman, outlining a “National Service Plan,” for President Johnson’s consideration. Gardner suggested that a small organization be formed to select “one hundred of the ablest and most highly motivated young men and women in the nation for a 15-month period of service with the government.” Selection would be based on “intelligence, character, special talents and general promise, and the standards would be so high that this would be as impressive an honor as a young person could win.” Each person selected would be given a meaningful work assignment that matched the candidate’s current work or education. In addition to the educational value of the work, these young people would be brought together for weekly seminars that exposed them to “the big picture” issues of governing and they would attend a ten-day retreat in the middle of the year to discuss leadership principles.

Simultaneously, William C. Friday, the young president of the University of North Carolina, sent the President a letter outlining his concerns about the student Goldwater movements on campuses, suggesting that President Johnson reach out to student leaders with an invitation to the White House.

On September 15, 1964, Goldman sent a memo to the President outlining Friday’s concerns noting that “a sizeable part of this [student] population does not feel as great a sense of rapport with the Administration as do other age groups” and that the most “practical way to get at the younger group is through college leaders.” Goldman closed his proposal for inviting student leaders to the White House by noting that no other president had ever summoned such an assortment of college leaders before and attached an abbreviated version of John Gardner’s updated memo with the notation that Gardner might be persuaded to fund a three-year pilot of the program through the Carnegie Foundation (which in fact did provide $305,000 to fund the program).

President Johnson’s response was immediate, with an enthusiastic go-ahead and extensive notations on the proposal by both him and Lady Bird. These notations included elevating the work assignments from the agencies as suggested by Gardner to the highest reaches of government. The number of Fellows would be reduced to 15 – one for each of ten cabinet officers, one for the vice-president, and for in the Office of the President. The First Lady had suggested the name White House Fellows and so it was chosen.

To get things rolling, the program would be established by Executive Order and announced at a special event for student leaders that was to be held, at the President’s request, on October 3, 1964, a mere two weeks away. Standing before 250 college leaders in the White House, the president announced that the White House Fellows Program that would bring 15 outstanding leaders each year to Washington for “first hand, high level experience in the workings of government.” Noting that citizen involvement was vital to freedom, President Johnson emphasized that “a genuinely free society cannot be a spectator society….Freedom in its deepest sense, requires participation – full, knowledgeable participation….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.”

President Johnson wanted his White House Fellows to be selected by a highly esteemed and bipartisan committee. David Rockefeller was selected as Chairman, noting at the time that “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 as the first chairman of what would become the White House Fellows Commission.” Rockefeller was joined by NYT editor John Oakes, Stanford Business School Dean Earnest C. Arbuckle, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, U.S. Education Commission Francis Keppel, UNC President William Friday, University of Texas Chancellor Harry Ransom, University of Minnesota President O. Meredith Wilson, U.S. Circuit Court Justice William Hastie, union president James Carey, Civil Service Commission Chair John Macy, and John Gardner. Tom Carr, Director of the Civil Service Commission’s government executive development programs, was soon detailed to make Executive Order 11183 a reality.

Led by Chairman David Rockefeller, the selection committee soon defined a mission statement that posed both questions and this 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. 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? We are not doing so.

Surely the raw material is still there. And just as surely more must be done in the development of our ablest young people to inspire and facilitate the emergence of such leaders and statesmen. Their horizons and experience must be broadened to give them a sense of personal involvement in the leadership of society, a vision of greatness for the society, and a sense of responsibility for bringing that greatness to reality.

After negotiating an extremely rigorous application and selection process modeled on the Rhodes Scholarship Program, the first class of 15 White House Fellows was chosen in June and reported to Washington in September of 1965. Since then, 642 superbly qualified young Americans have served nine presidents through the shared the work experience with senior leaders in the executive branch and a education program (meeting 2-3 times a week in off-the-record sessions with leaders from every walk of American life) for the Fellows envisioned by John Gardner and President Johnson. After the Fellowship year, they have become leaders in every segment of our society.

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As noted by White House Fellow Charles Garcia in his recent book Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows, “President Johnson knew how to create opportunity; John Gardner knew how to fulfill it….[The President] had opened the door to the White House so that the nation’s best and brightest young men and women could go to Washington and work with mentors to tackle the nation’s biggest challenges, just as he and Lady Bird had done thirty-five years before.”

44 years after the first class of White House Fellows came to Washington, David Rockefeller noted in a letter to the White House Fellows Foundation and Association, “I have never regretted that decision [to serve as the first Chair of the Commission]. The White House Fellows program has been an exceptional success. Based on my experience with the first few classes of Fellows and meeting many others who have been selected over the past five decades, I think we have achieved all of the goals originally envisioned by President Johnson.”

That same sense of excellence envisioned by John Gardner and President Johnson endures today as White House Fellows continue to serve for a fellowship year and then return to become leaders in their communities and professions throughout our society. And as their leadership matures and becomes noticed after the Fellowship year, they are often invited back to Washington to serve as appointed officials at the highest levels of our Federal government. Today, 13 White House Fellows serve in appointed positions in the Obama Administration. 2 of the serving four-star officers and 4 of the three-star officers are also White House Fellows.

Some have served at the national level: Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell; Supreme Allied Commander, Europe Wesley K. Clark, Former Commander-in-Chief, Pacific and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, Senators Sam Brownback, David Karnes and Tim Wirth, Congressmen Joe Barton, Tim Campbell and Lynn Schenk, Appellate Court Justices Deanell Tacha and Margaret McKeown, Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey, Millennium Challenge Corporation CEO Paul Applegarth and former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner.

Other Fellows have gone to be leaders in the private sector: Jim Padilla, former President of Ford Motor Company, Mike Ullman, President and CEO of J.C. Penny, Bob Haas, President and CEO of Levi Strauss, Marshall Carter, CEO of NYSE Euronext, John DeLuca, President and CEO of the Wine Institute of California, Jane Pfeiffer, former CEO of NBC, Ron Naples, CEO of Quaker Chemical, David Bere, CEO of Dollar General Stores and Michelle Peluso, CEO of Travelocity.

White House Fellows have served as presidents of colleges and universities: David Roe (Central College of Iowa), Bill Cotter (Colby College), Tom Cronin (Whitman College), Adam Herbert (Indiana University), Martin Jischke (Iowa State and Purdue), MG John Grianlds (The Citadel), LTG Bill Lennox (Superintendent of West Point), ADM Chuck Larson (Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy), Dana Mead (MIT Corporation), and Pat Harker (the University of Delaware), VADM Ann Rondeau (President of the National Defense University), VADM Dan Oliver (President of the Naval Postgraduate School), LTG Bill Caldwell (Commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College), and RADM Marty Evans (President of the Naval Postgraduate School and Director of the George C. Marshall Center). Harker (Wharton), Bob Joss (Stanford), Tom Campbell (UC Berkeley), Tom O’Brien (UMass), and Earl Walker (The Citadel) have all been deans of business schools. John Fryer and John Barry both retired as general officers and went on to become superintendents of large urban school districts. And Gil Omenn (EVP for Medical Affairs at the University of Michigan and former President of the National Academy for the Advancement of Science), Bill Roper (EVP for Medical Affairs at UNC Chapel Hill and former Director of the CDC), and Sanjay Gupta (CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent) have made their marks in the field of medicine.

State and local government have been the beneficiaries of the WHF Program as well: Garry Carruthers was the Governor of New Mexico. Tom Leppert (Mayor of Dallas), Mufi Hannemann (Mayor of Honolulu) and Ike Leggett (Chief Executive of Montgomery County, MD) are currently serving elected officials. Today, in an irony of fate, the two candidates for the Republican nomination for governor in California are both White House Fellows: Tom Campbell and Steve Poizner.

The non-profit world has benefited from the leadership of Fellows as well to include: the late Julia V. Taft (CEO of Interaction, Director of OFDA and Assistant Secretary of State for PRM), Anne Cohn Donnelly (Executive Director of the National Commission for the Prevention of Child Abuse), Marsha Evans (former President and CEO, American Red Cross, Executive Director of the Girl Scots of America, and acting Commissioner of the LPGA), Michael Levett (President and CEO of Citizens Development Corps), John McCarter (President and CEO of The Field Museum), Elizabeth Stock (Computers for Youth), Cheryl Dorsey (Echoing Green), Ariel Zwang (Safe Horizon in NYC) and Tim Wirth (President of the UN Foundation and former Senator, Congressman, and Under Secretary of State).

Fellows have excelled as leaders in the arts, journalism and literature. Among the many are Charles Ansbacher (conductor of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra), Tom Johnson (Publisher of the LA Times and CEO of CNN), Paul Gigot (Editor of the editorial page of the WSJ), Doris Kearns Goodwin (Pulitzer Prize winning author and presidential historian), Clay Christensen (The Innovator’s Dilemma and a number of management books), Kinney Zalesne (Microtrends), Charles Garcia (Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows), and John Fenzel (The Lazurus Covenant).

Nearly 40 Fellows have been Rhodes Scholars. Joan Abrahamson and Chris Chyba have been chosen as MacArthur Fellows.