Message from the President
On the Passing of Dr. John Tanton
When I first met John Tanton nearly 40 years ago, he and his lovely wife MaryLou had come to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for important changes to U.S. immigration law.
Dr. Tanton had taken time off from his busy medical practice – as an eye surgeon he dramatically changed people’s lives for the better every day – in order to change the country’s future for the better ever after. The so-called Simpson-Mazzoli bill was up for congressional consideration.
That was Dr. Tanton (we’ll call him John), a selfless giver of his time and talents in the interests of a better tomorrow. This remarkable giant of a man that passed away this passed Tuesday quietly in his home town of Petoskey, Michigan.
Those who knew him recognized a unique personality: A person with extraordinary persistence in promoting ideas based on a careful analysis of how today’s decisions affect the future. I have stated that John was a Renaissance man, and that was true. He was interested in so many different topics and areas that no one person could see the entire picture.
He was interested in history and the future, in population policy and its related ecological considerations; he was concerned about environmental preservation, and culture and family planning, and assimilation and the collective culture that makes a nation successful over time…the list goes on and on. And he made those ideas move with incredible success over time.
What made John the way he was is simple: Educating himself daily, he set out in the constant quest for powerful ideas. He sought to find these ideas through a process of trial and error. John persistently drafted papers, thoughts, ideas – they appeared every day on scraps of paper, torn sheets out of books, the backsides of business memos – in a never-ending stream of trial balloons. His papers show a busy intellect, a restless mind covering the full gamut of ideas that pertain to the human enterprise. He reached out to all manner of persons in the all sorts of fields to obtain feedback on his non-stop idea machine. This brought him into contact with many formidable public opinion leaders and figures of historic importance.
John was not a politician. He was not made for the public spotlight. He was a creative intellect who sought to develop ideas and send them up as trial balloons for feedback. He was stubborn and he was persistent. But simply because he wrote an argument down did not mean he agreed with it or even supported it; often it was merely the process of generating discussion around it. As he learned the hard way, promoting informal ideas – even where they were uniformly dismissed immediately by others – could cause unethical advocates who disagreed with you to ascribe to you policy positions that you yourself never adopted. This nasty sleight of hand was used repeatedly against John, especially in cases where he was floating an idea out as an intellectual exercise.
In so many ways, John exemplified what it means to be a citizen of a free country. The relentless need to inquire, to understand, to shape and guide – all in the service of the greater public good. He always used to say, “a good deal of life is trying to figure out what to do until the undertaker comes.”
Perhaps John never appreciated fully at the outset how public would be the recognition of his work, nor how unfairly those who feared him would seek to destroy his legacy. He was a victim of his unanticipated success. He never accepted these harsh statements about him – his mind wasn’t built to understand the unprincipled, the self-interested and the unethical.
Of course for John, the big reward was to see a number of the organizations he helped conceive grow into tall oaks – guiding and shaping the public discourse in history-changing ways. Looking back on John’s life today, I see a remarkable man whose legacy is barely recognizable in the social media battlegrounds that make up today’s public policy discussions.
John was a gentle soul who merely wanted to ensure we had the vital conversations that would allow future generations to judge that we acted properly at the time when it mattered most. He deserves an honest assessment by those seeking an honest history. He was a gift to the nation and he will be sorely missed.