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Interview with Steve Gunderson

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Gunderson, Steve, 1951- ; McKiernan, Stephen


Steve Gunderson is the former President and CEO of the Council on Foundations as well as the former Republican congressman from Wisconsin. Gunderson is currently President and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Gunderson went on to train at the Brown School of Broadcasting in Minneapolis.




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McKiernan Interviews




McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: Steve Gunderson
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: Benjamin Mehdi So
Date of interview: 25 July 1997

(Start of Interview)

SM: First question I want to ask you is a lot of the criticisms today, for example, I have heard Newt Gingrich oftentimes say it I have heard George will say it in some of his commentaries, and I have even read about it in some of the historical books that I read, that if we look at today's problems in America, there is sometimes there is a generalization that a lot of the problems go back to the boomer generation, the breakup of the American family, the increase in drugs in America, the lack of respect for authority, even sometimes the-the lack of civility between people will be placed back on the boomer generation by Boomer generation. I mean, those born between (19)46 and (19)64. What are your thoughts on that kind of thinking? That places the blame on our problems today to a generation?

SG: I think it is partially true. I think there are dynamics that were resolved with the baby boomers coming of age, that have profound long term generational effects, certainly, the lack of trust in institutions, the polarization of American politics, the willingness to question and take on authority and traditions, all of those important dynamics from the New Age and development years of the baby boomers. That, however, does not answer the more significant questions about the ability of American or international institutions to cope with a dramatically changing nature.

SM: This is where [audio cuts] [inaudible] reached her in many ways and personally reach. It's a follow up question to that. If you look at the year 1997. And as we're heading into the year 1998, if you could look at, again, this generation, which is just reaching 50, we hear the news a lot about Bill Clinton being you know, more than 46 being kind of the lead of the boomer generation. But what would you say are the accomplishments of the boomer generation thus far? If you were to look at this generation, knowing that they are just reaching the age of 50?

SG: I think there are some dramatic accomplishments. I think telecommunications and scientific breakthroughs during this generation’s history are more significant than any other generation in history of the world. You just look, you know at 100 different examples of that area. Second, I think here at home, this generation has had two profound effects. They have created an environmental sensitivity that did not exist before. And I think they have clearly created a fiscal sensitivity in terms of the federal government's ability to match income and revenues without [inaudible] allocations.

SM: The top of that question, if you were to list some of the adjectives, some of the qualities that you think are the positive qualities of boomers, and then list three or four, their negative qualities, and trying to evaluate them, based on your lifetime, when you were young, maybe as you changed over the years, and how you feel now, but looking at the qualities that they may have compared to say, the World War II generation and even today's younger generation,

SG: Ambitious, motivated, driven goal setting which more so than the generation before us and the generation after us. At the creative side, we also made the regeneration, which is more selfish, which is more consumption oriented or sensitive to appreciation of the arts and culture, community. Throughout the liberal arts generation were educated to be.

SM: How about the area of passion? One of the things it is like, you know, when you look at the boomer generations made up 65-70 million, I am sure the final the exact number, but they will say that 15 percent were really involved in some sort of activism, could have been conservative activism could be liberal, but basically 15 percent. I interviewed Todd Gitlin in New York two days ago, and he said, let us break it down to 1 percent activism because really only 200,000 of the true activists at that time, leading protests against the war, ending the battle, the civil rights and so forth. Your thoughts on that kind of?

SG: Oh, I think we were much more activist generations at the expense of our personal families and human community lives. You can look at the percent that was involved in the war, but they taught the other elements of our society. You see activism today in many different areas, you see it in the religious and social right, you see it the women's movement, you see it in the gay and lesbian movement, you see it in the black history and culture movement. Almost all of this is driven by baby boomers who are affected and taught what activism meant, as they grew up. Even if they were not active in their active classroom when I was done an act of history in Vietnam. There is no I would not say I have not been an activist. Right.

SM: Right. And you would not ever have tried to find so closely that activism is like the liberal left.

SG: No. I think-

SM: -That sometimes that is what they portray activism is left of center, as opposed to right of center. Knowing your history, a lot of people involved in the Goldwater movement, were-

SG: More activism on the right today than on the left.

SM: How do you feel about people who try to place labels on activism and activism, again, which was supposed to be a quality of the boomer generation, and whether they carried it on as they have gotten older, is a negative quality. I say this because this past week, I interviewed Ron Castile, former DEA of Philadelphia, who was a diehard conservative, and now he is a judge. And he says, do not ever put up the term activism on me even though when he was a college student, he was active on some issues. And also, as he has gotten older, he was responsible for putting the Vietnam Memorial together in Philadelphia, you know, he did something but he that label, that term is seems to have a negative connotation, some people.

SG: Well, in terms of histories, and the truth is he is an activist, the truth is the [inaudible] even Christian coalition are activists. The truth is that there are many different activists and social and political right.

SM: I go many directions here in all interviews, I have about 40 Questions from then I have about 100 of them, really. And one of them is that I deal with students’ day in and day out, and you met many. And when you visit our campus, it is interesting that when they look at people from our generation, no matter who they are, what they represent, they will tend to place them into two categories. And there does not seem to be anything in between. Number one is I wish I had lived when you live, there were so many issues. I mean, life seemed exciting. They were tough things and the war in Vietnam and civil rights. And then many of the movements came about the gay and lesbian movement, the women's movement, the Native American movement, the environmental movement, I wish I could have lived then when all these things are happening. And then the other attitude is I am sick of hearing it. I am sick of hearing about the nostalgia all up all the boomers are you live as in the past, you remember the memories of this, this movement and that movement? And the- you know, we have our own problems today, we have our own issues. And so, the issues then are no longer applicable. What are your thoughts on that, and how we can best reach today's young people when they have those kinds of, those kinds of attitudes?

SG: To restore that one generation and the next role as part of it is parent child. Part of it is there is a basic historical and cultural transition that occurs from one generation to the next. And some of that is simply irreconcilable. So, I am not sure that we can reach him there to question in the mode in which we can reach in his own civility, if we can find ways to be more civil in our discourse and in our activism. And I think that is what really turns off the young people is not a passion to identify and solve problems, but it is the lack of civility that which our generation addresses those issues.

SM: Would you talk a little bit more about the civility and whether boomers who it's like, there seemed to be at that time and in your face, attitude, you're never going to satisfy the demands that many of the activists had, and whether that's been able to be transferred as people have gotten older. Some people will say they even see it in the halls of Congress of which-

SG: Oh, sure.

SM: -You were there and-and people just cannot be civil. And it goes back to those times is like pointing fingers and arguing and not listening. And you are the reason why we have all the problems in the world. As you know that kind of-

SG: The problem for my generation is that passion was identified as confrontation in reverse. There was no such thing as a moderate opponent to the Vietnam War. Alteration became the regiment of passivity rather than a compliment of style. And so, as a result of that we have learned and carried with us unfortunately, with the way we display our passion on any issue today is to be loud, confrontational and too often rude.

SM: How is that affecting today's young people, I do not want -

SG: It is a turn off. It is a great American turnoff, because they increasingly look at both the style and the issues by which we take passion to that degree endeavor I can identify, it is why they turn off the government. It's why they turn on to volunteerism during your generation did not want to debate issues.

SM: This leads into another area and that is at 50, which is the oldest the front of the door movement, realizing these potential negative qualities that you have raised about the boomers. can things be turned around in terms of can boomers ever change who they are, as they get older, in order for us to be life is supposed to be constantly changing? We teach students day in and day out that you are constantly evolving and developing.

SG: Oh, yeah.

SM: So, it can, for example, what happened in congress this past week with someone who Gingrich's closest people kind of stabbing him in the back it was, was amazing scenario.

SG: But-but the truth is that that is a classic example of where people are motivated simply by politics, rather than by policy. And but he goes in by passion, you are going to have those kinds of dynamics. It is also why the general public, not just the generation expert, the general public, totally tunes out to what is going on Capitol Hill. They were not only increasingly irrelevant, as government's percent of participation in society decreases, but also, when they see the styles of people though they do not want to be relevant to the water we associate with that. But on the other hand, I think we correct this issue because any generation as it ages mellows out, and also, they just historic that the generation often returns to its roots. And as a result of that, I think you will see the baby boomers, find a new interest in community, and neighborhoods. And, frankly, volunteering the day-to-day problems of their fellow man.

SM: Activism back in the late (19)60s and early (19)70s, was basically define defined into two major categories. Of course, it was the Civil Rights Movement, and it was the war against Vietnam. And of course, then a lot of the other movements evolved from the Civil Rights Movement, the movements that we talked about earlier. Today, there is a lot of different kinds of activism. There's activism on the internet, there is, there is all kinds of different things and that, but it's not geared toward one major happening like the war. Could you comment on two things? Number one, how important were the college students in the late (19)60s and early (19)70s, in terms of ending the war in Vietnam? This seems to be a controversy with the people I have interviewed that some say they had no influence at all, others say they had a lot of influences. How important were the students on college campus in the war, and how-

SG: They were very important because they not only affected change themselves, they affected a nation's perception. The reason that others weighed in against the world was because their consciousness had been raised by college kids.

SM: That was the point blank asked you, what is the number one reason why the war ended? In Vietnam? What would that one reason be?

SG: American exhaustion, fighting at home, we were tired of fighting over there. We were tired of being in a war that was recently difficult to determine who was right who was wrong and was winning was losing. And we in essence, decided just plain to come home.

SM: Looking at the Civil Rights Movement, how important were the boomers in that movement, knowing that in the summer of (19)64, which is really Freedom Summer when the oldest Boomer would have been 18 years old in the summer of (19)64. And a lot of great civil rights efforts has been the late (19)50s through that time period of (19)64. How important were the young people of that era in terms of assisting carrying on the message of the Civil Rights Movement?

SG: I think in many ways they were the people's army rallying to their leaders call whether it be Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, whoever it was we were in many ways the troops, but you were certainly not the leaders.

SM: As you have gotten older and you know, the war ended, and certainly the-the draft was no longer a problem. So many people thought that, well, since that ended, there is really no more cause anymore. And that was what it was all about. But when you when you look at people of your age group now who are close to 50 have been carried on the idealism of that time have, they carried on in their lives now some people have, but your thoughts on that.

SG: We are a much more driven and materialistic generation; we are an idealistic generation. That has probably been a great transition for the ideals of our young adulthood. To the deals of our business, and professional experiences.

SM: That caught me the other end. [chuckles] To me, money is real secondary. I thought, when I was young, and the people I was around, we were going to go into the service professions and serve others. Money was secondary, any, any the friends that are going to go to law school, and they were going to go right back to the university, some went on to be very successful corporate lawyers, but so you do not think the majority of the people really carried that the money was secondary as-

SG: Well. I mean, I think you have seen that in the increasing apathy of the American people. You have elections for less than a half vote, and you look at who those people are. People that are not voting are the young and baby boomer generations.

SM: Even statistics are astonishing about how many of the college aged students voted, I just cannot believe we have almost begged students to vote, or we have a voter registration drive, we get about three or 400 registered, but it is not easy. What is in it for me, you know, that kind of an attitude. That is another thing, that quality, that an activist is never supposed to say what is in it for me, an activist is supposed to say I want to serve others, or something for the betterment of society. And you think that most of the mountain a great majority of boomers have taken that quality of what is in it for me mentality, which is the total alien nature of what an activist truly is?

SG: Well, I think we are a selfish generation, motivated by money and our own economic standing. But I will also say that we have also witnessed the selfishness of our parents’ generation, its- their demands on the government. And so, while we are selfish, we are not selfishly demanding of government to take care of us, we are rather preoccupied on a personal basis to deal with our own economics.

SM: Did you change your thoughts on this generation over the years, say, when you were in college, and then 10 years out of college 15, 20. Now or 25, or whatever, have you been pretty consistent in your attitudes toward your generation? Or was there a point in your life you saw an awakening and your point of view just totally changed?

SG: I am using doubt in my opinion of our generation has changed, that we use as a classic example. Through this line by Robert Kennedy used in graduation speeches in colleges and high schools across the country at that time, which was some people see things as they are and ask why I dream things that never were and ask why not? You have not heard that use the last 20 years. You have not heard it used because there are no dreams anymore. People, there are no ideals anymore. People have been much more consumed by their own personal day to day than the greater good. That was driven by Kennedy statements. I mean, I remember as a college student the day Kennedy, the day Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's funeral, going home from college, and listening to that funeral all the way home in the radio. It was not just me it was everybody in the car. I got the record of Robert Kennedy's funeral. There is no way my generation would listen to or buy a record of a US senator’s funeral today.

SM: You are right.

SG: Dramatic change.

SM: In your- Why-why did this happen?

SG: Um, I think it is a combination. On the one hand, it is a growing disaffection with government and the government's ability to make change. I think second it is a simple reality that most as they moved into adulthood, and family life, became the responsible providers of the family as opposed to the social activists that they have been in their youth. So, I think it is a combination too. Third, I am going to go so far as to say, it is also a lack in the last 20 years of inspirational leaders.

SM: There is a real good point because I even hear that among African American students in terms of trying to who are the leaders within the African American community. And of course, Jesse Jackson is the one name that always comes forward. But he is older, he is like 55 years old, so-so they see him a sense and another-another going back a rappers with Chuck D people that are on the radio and they were really Sister Souljah people like that is what they are identifying to. They are not leaders, their personalities in the media or in the music world, or something like that. I find that amazing that boomers are inspired by the Bob Dylan's of the world, and you know, the music of the year. But like you say, you also admire the political leaders, you do not see a whole lot of that. Very good observation. Wha- one term that is often used when I was young, and I do not know if you heard it around your peers, but that we are the most unique generation in American history that we are going to be the change agents for the betterment of society. And we thought that when we go into a rally, or we are in an auditorium listening to a speaker of that period on a college campus, and whether that attitude was an arrogance on the part of the young at that time thinking that it was going to carry on, that seems to be a term that I heard all the time, I want to know if you heard that when you were young-

SG: Sure.

SM: -That we are unique, and that no other generation before us, and certainly none that will follow will ever be like us. And this goes beyond just the numbers game, which is-

SG: Well, I think I think certainly, we all grew up believing we were different than anyone before us. I do not know that we would go so far as to see what would include generations after us.

SM: Another quality of youth then more than anything that you need that [inaudible].

SG: Well, yeah, because part of what we were doing is we were we were rejecting the status quo of American society. And we knew that we were going to be dramatically changing the status quo. But we were not so naive as to suggest that would not also be done by future generations against us.

SM: Just a straight point question. We are the biggest generation ever. There may never be another one that vigorousness again, believe I wrote an article last week, so we had 76 million I never knew we had that many in the boomer generation. But what is the most significant? Again, it might be a repetition of an earlier question but what made the generation different beyond their size?

SG: Their view of the world, their view of the United States, first generation that did not want America to be the superpower.

SM: Melodramatic flaws here. [chuckles] Good observation.

SG: Just so you know. I am happy to call you next week and finish. I am real sensitive to time here. I have promised somebody at University of Alabama we would be back to them by 230. And I can miss that for a little bit.

SM: Are you okay through 2:30?

SG: No, I have got a draft a letter to get to them. That is what I my concern is, can we go 15 minutes, to 2:20. Cut it off.

SM: And yet, you want me to come back? Like-

SG: She thought this was going to be half an hour so.

SM: Oh, she did.

SG: Yeah.

SM: Oh. 1 to 2:30. That was a little late too.

SG: Hour and a half today. I mean, I am happy to call you, if that works. To save you a trip or if you're back in town. I am happy to fish it up. My problem is [audio cuts]

SM: Okay, right. I do want to take a picture.

SG: I apologize for that. But this is unpredicted.

SM: Do you feel the boomer generation is having problems with healing and I raised this because of the fact that the Vietnam memorial was built with the hope that it would heal the generation, it would heal the nation, it would heal the veterans? Where do you feel we stand right now in the area of healing in this nation and knowing that the divisions in that era were so, so wide? Because people were for and against the war, people got involved with Civil Rights Movements. They thought civil disobedience was a precursor to riots, just your thought about the healing processes in America since that time.

SG: I do not know that Americans know the importance or value of healing anymore. I do not think it is a goal. I do not think reconciliation is a goal. I do not think mutual respect is a goal. I think all of this is a result of the increasing polarization of a nation of society in the increasing cynicism about our institutions, and the combination of the two, produce an attitude which says everybody else claims to be the victim. So, I must be the victim too. You know we’re each a different victim. You're that academic victim, you are that wasp, male, Father, victim of middle America, I am that gay victim, patties that woman's victim, somebody's the black victim, everybody's a victim.

SM: How would you define the generation gap from that era between the boomer generation of their parents and today's boomers and their children, you are to define the two generation gaps.

SG: I think our generation better understand the role and temporary importance of generation gaps. And so, I do not think the gap is as great between us and the next generation as it was between our parents’ generation and us, because for parents’ generation had a much more difficult time understanding the dramatically different visions. Because we had a generation gap with our parents that were better at minimizing the generation gap between us in the next generation.

SM: What will be the lasting legacy of the boomer generation when the best history books are written and say 50 years from now, your thoughts on what they will be saying, many of us will be long gone. How do you think historians will look at this period? And by this period, I mean, when we were young, the (19)60s early (19)70s impact on America. And as they some of the things you referred to earlier, the qualities they took over.

SG: It is the generation that broke down all the barriers in the world, and broke down the political boundaries, and said that, frankly, they do not matter. We broke down cultural boundaries, we broke down the communications boundaries. In many ways, we break it down into the language, and the economic boundaries, certainly through trade. This generation more than any other generation has made the world a smaller place and increasingly interdependent.

SM: When I took students to meet Senator Muskie before he died by two years before he died. And we put a question about the impact of 1968 on America. And the divisions were many of the boomers had an equality at least, which is still a lack of respect for authority even as they have gone into adulthood, people like that, who they report to, and so forth. It was getting into the issue of healing again, and he basically said that we have not healed since the Civil War. And he talked about two different Americans before and after the Civil War. The question I am getting at is this. Do you feel this generation boomers because of the divisions of those times have a real serious healing comparable to the Civil War where there were such divisions in America and they went to their grave of bitterness toward the other side? You think this is an issue with many boomers that there is this feeling within their suffering, something missing because they never forgave a lot of Vietnam veterans maybe never forgave the protestors. Protestors feel guilty that they did not serve, but there is-

SG: No one can minimize the impact of Vietnam on our generation or society. I would not attempt to do that. I do, however, think that there is a big difference. And I would disagree with Senator Muskie.

SM: Keeping time to-

SG: I appreciate it. I think that to be honest, technology did not allow the kind of national consciousness that occurred in this country until before World War II. Before that people really did not care what happened day to day in the world or even in Washington, because then find out about it for days to come. They were much more consumed by their own community. And we are the first generation that the majority of kids growing up will not be employed in their home community. When I talked to young people now, I said, the majority of your class probably will not be employed in the US. I mean, there is a dramatic change of that local consciousness there. So, I would disagree a little bit with Senator Muskies’ basis.

SM: Three important quality and that is the issue of trust in America. I want to know if you feel one of the qualities of the boomer generation that they will be carried to their graves is the quality or lack of trust. They have in their leaders and refer to it earlier, kind of created a consensus cynicism as America. And just your overall thoughts on the cynical leadership that has happened throughout the lives of boomers. And will they be able to overcome that as well?

SG: No. Because the only way they could overcome that is if Social Security and Medicare would be without any challenges in their retirement years so that they would be able to live totally economic security and comfort. And they are not going to be able to do that. Also, what you are going to have is you are going to have an increasing two class society, not only among the young and the working, but also among the elderly. You are going to have those elderly who had the ability to either put things away or have great inherent inheritances, and you are going to have the majority who did not, and they are going to be bitter, they're going to say life was unfair to me. Now, my retirement is unfair to me as well.

SM: In the area of empowerment, which we always try to deal with young people, the sense that your voice counts that when you are working with college students, we need to hear your voice, that empowerment is something we try to develop in people so that as they go online, they are heard their voice counts. Your thoughts on the concept that many boomers felt of sense of empowerment, when they, you know, gets the major issues of the day, the war, civil rights and the movements we talked about. Whether they carry that sense of empowerment into their lives. And whether you feel today's young people have a sense of empowerment, that they are really being listened [audio cuts]. model that we try to work with college students about is developing self-esteem that in [inaudible] trying to work on that. So, your, just your thoughts on that concept of empowerment that so many of the boomers had, and where that may have gone.

SG: I do not think in the area of high technology and individualism, that you can create group empowerment. And certainly, you cannot create the feeling of generational power. Very difficult for a person growing up with a personal computer, somehow understand how they and everybody else their age are going to make a cumulative difference.

SM: Does that apply to boomers themselves as they hit 50? Certainly, you as a congressperson felt empowered.

SG: I think, I think we as a generation, were empowered by our impact on Vietnam. We were empowered by our ability to impact the environmental policies in this country. We were powered by our numbers. So, there were there were signs that gave us reason to be empowered. I do not know if those signs continue, however, as we become almost disseminated into increasingly polarized society. I do not think the- a bond which unites us today is not the bond of our generation.

SM: When you look back at your life? What was the first one experience, one happening that had the greatest impact on your life? What was that one happening?

SG: [inaudible] the two. I would have to say, John Kennedy's assassination as a teenager, when they close the school down, and everyone was glued to the TV for four days, or we had a National Day of Mourning as a big impact on a young person. The second was landing on the moon. Vividly, we landed on the moon, watch that on TV. And that was the victory of science and high technology, which-which told our generation that we were a part of something far different than the nation in the world's history.

SM: What did those two experiences, how do they affect you as you moved on until right now, when you when you saw that assassination of John Kennedy, what did that do to you? And then as you grew up, I am going to do something to make the world better, what-what was the date, did those two experiences really-

SG: Well, they are, they are, significant for very different reasons. Kennedy's assassination in the events which follow led to a distrust or lack of reliance on the government to my generation. It- everybody produces Vietnam as the beginning of the cynicism. I think they minimize the impact of Kennedy's assassination, the underlying foundation for that cynicism and government. On the other hand, the landing on the moon talks all about technology. And it is, it is so dramatically different from this small town I visited or visited I grew up in, where people did not leave their counties say nothing of leaving their globes. Where you communicated through the operator at the local telephone station not through technology thousands, hundreds of thousands of miles away. I mean, like, what a disconnect. And then we sat and watched TV, which took us from that generation of a past where we were sitting in our living rooms with our parents, to the generation of the future we saw it on television that day. That was the bridge between here and here.

SM: I got many more questions. I think-think we will cut off here and what I will do is, I will either come back to Washington because I am making three or four more trips down here this summer or call you on the phone at times convenient because the rest of the [audio cuts].

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


Steve Gunderson, 1951-

Biographical Text

Steve Gunderson is the former President and CEO of the Council on Foundations as well as the former Republican congressman from Wisconsin. Gunderson is currently President and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Gunderson went on to train at the Brown School of Broadcasting in Minneapolis.





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Binghamton University Libraries

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Legislators—United States; Council on Foundations; Gunderson, Steve, 1951--Interviews

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Baby boom generation; Newt Gingrich; Generations; Activism; Civility; Young generation; Individuality; Robert Kennedy's funeral; Bob Dylan.



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Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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