Early on the morning of June 1 in a Washington, D.C. hospital, our country lost a great man to cancer. Philip Stern, crusader for campaign finance reform, prolific author on everything from taxes to insurance and donor to all manners of causes–struggling citizen groups and young crusaders–was not widely known to the American people. But he was a tireless defender and builder of democracy and the most creative, versatile and persistent philanthropist of our generation.
I first came across Philip Stern when he wrote a book in 1962 called “The Great Treasury Raid”–a meticulous description of how corporations and the wealthy escaped paying billions of dollars in taxes. It was not long before I came across his good works at an accelerating pace that spanned three decades. Stern was born of wealthy parents. His grandfather was the former chairman of the board of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and a dynamic philanthropist in his day, particularly in funding the construction of schools for black children in the South. After service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Stern graduated form Harvard, became a newspaper reporter and later served in a variety of positions in the federal government.
He left government to begin a thirty year career as a Democracy Johnny Appleseed. During this period, it became almost routine for progressive projects and their initiators to go first to Stern or his several foundations for startup money. Giving such spirited activists a “leg up” was a special interest of Stern’s and his eye for the likely success was uncanny. It was his small grant, for example, that launched Seymour Hersh into his investigation of the MyLai massacre in Vietnam that stunned our nation.
If there were courageous whistleblowers in companies or government to be helped, Stern was there. He supported investigative journalists, workers trying to reform the Teamsters and a variety of civil rights and civil liberties projects.
While raising five children with his wife Helen, he opened doors for meetings between rock stars and environmental groups, between political establishment figures and advocates for the poor and powerless.
When he was in his early Fifties, he decided to go to Law School. He finished one year and was turned off. So instead, he wrote a book taking many lawyers to task for their mistreatment of clients and recommending, as always, constructive reforms. He taught himself how to fly an airplane soon thereafter and, even during his battle with tumors, he went around town on a motorscooter and a knapsack on his shoulder.
During the nineteen eighties, his major focus was to get private money out of political elections. He would design ads for radio and newspapers and go after key members of Congress in their home district. His book, “The Best Congress Money Can Buy” (1988) helped build what now seems an irreversible movement toward some significant cleansing of this mess.
But most impressive about Stern was his courageous commitment to his work, his peripatic restlessness in search of new ways to make our society better, in the midst of agonizing operations, chemotherapy and numerous visits to hospitals and clinics. Most patients in his affluent position would have called it a day and withdrawn from the fray. Not the courageous Stern. He went to the office and library every possible day that he was away from his physicians.
Near the end, he told his friends that he was “bored out of his skull” sitting immobilized in his wheelchair. He said with a characteristic twinkle in his eyes, that he wanted to receive ideas that would “save the world” but he wasn’t finding any lately.
His good humor, nudging wit and furiously lively mind stayed with him until he lapsed into a coma the last week. At Stern’s memorial service, John Kenneth Gailbraith said that “We may not see his likes again, but I hope we do.” It is a telling but utterly sad tribute that at the age of 66, Philip Stern was just reaching the prime of life.