BYUPAS Board Member Spotlight: Mark W. Cannon

Interview with Mark W. Cannon

It is difficult to introduce a man like Mark W. Cannon. A written list of his noteworthy accomplishments and positions, although impressive, is insufficient in describing the character of a man who has truly made a difference in the lives of those around him as well as our country as a whole. Throughout his distinguished professional career, he has been able to maintain an important perspective on life and remain dedicated to his family and the gospel.

Mark W. Cannon, with wife Betty and oldest granddaughter, Dixon Brown of Park City, who introduced him at a talk to BYU interns. She interned with Congressman Jeff Flake. (July 18, 2011)

After graduating from the University of Utah, Mark went on to receive a Ph.D. in Political Economy and Government from Harvard in 1961. From 1961-1964, he served as Chairman of the Political Science Department at BYU. As Director of the Institute of Public Administration in New York, in 1972, he was chosen from over 700 applicants to fill the new statutory position of Administrative Assistant to the Chief Justice under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. After over 13 years of serving in this position, Dr. Cannon was appointed staff director of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. He was also a founding owner of Geneva Steel and was Executive Vice President of Geneva Development. Dr. Cannon has three children and seven grandchildren. He currently lives in Virginia with his amazing wife Betty.

1. You have worked in a variety of different fields including public service, business, and academia. What has been your most rewarding professional position and why?

Each position has been richly rewarding! However, considering all aspects, serving as the first person to fill the new statutory position of Administrative Assistant (now titled Counsel) to the Chief Justice for 13 ½ years was especially rewarding.  Reasons include the competitive thrill of being chosen from a large field of people, working with creative and talented people ranging from Chief Justice Warren Burger to my extraordinary Supreme Court fellows and interns, connecting with a wide swath of Washington leaders, and feeling weekly the joy of helping people and contributing to improvements – often small, sometimes large.    

 2.      You started a blog at that talks about the positive fruits of the LDS faith. Could you tell us your reasoning and motivation for starting this blog?

When I was 15, I won a scholarship to Deep Springs, an avant garde two-year college of 20 students in a desert valley in California where students read great books and studied intensely while also running and working all aspects of a cattle ranch and farm that produced much of the food eaten at the college.  The “isolation policy” prevented me from leaving the valley to attend the LDS Church.  I could see the world with many religions, each of which seemed to reflect aspects of the culture and history of its region.  I loved the Church of my upbringing, but wondered about it, and struggled with how I could know its historic authenticity.  I frequently prayed that if the Lord would help me gain a testimony, I would spend the rest of my life doing what I could to build His kingdom. 

 Upon graduation from the University of Utah, where I had been very active as an Assistant Editor of the Daily Chronicle, debater, Founders Day Chairman, swimming letterman, and finally student body president–as well as working 20 hours a week–I left for a mission to Argentina.  In my early period, while reading Orson Pratt’s “Was Joseph Smith Called by God?” I received a testimony through a feeling of complete positive illumination and Divine peace.  I was scheduled to speak along with my senior companion, the District President of all of Buenos Aires (now multiple missions).  This was before the Church offered advanced language training, and my Spanish was not great, but I put down my written speech and spoke fluently.

 Since then, throughout my life I have tried to help build the Kingdom of God as I promised.  For example, since moving from New York to Washington, D.C. in 1972, despite being very busy, I have been significantly involved with well over 200 baptisms.  Since Jesus said that the way to know true prophets was by their fruits, I kept track of comments by non-Mormon leaders and major studies, particularly by non-Mormons, that laid out salutary accomplishments of the Church and practicing. These were explicit evidences of the divinity of the Church as well as pointers to what could happen in the lives of members if they are faithful.  This has been helpful to our missionary success.  When Elder Ballard was a guest speaker at one of our BYU Management annual dinners, he urged us all to get into the Internet.  Afterward, I told him that I searched for fruits of Mormonism on Google and most finds were ad hominem attacks on the Church with no objective, meaningful evidence.  I thought there should be a website featuring studies largely by non-Mormons which objectively demonstrated the fruits of Mormonism.  He asked if I knew many such studies and I said yes.  So, he urged me to create the website. 

Mark W. and Betty S. Cannon with long-time friend Mitt Romney.

 3.      Can you identify any defining moments or events in your youth that pushed you toward a career in politics?

a.) Family history.  Two Cannon relatives had been elected to the U.S. Senate.  My grandfather George Q. Cannon was the principal political spokesman for the Church in the 1800’s.  He was a Territorial Delegate to Congress and missed election to the U.S. Senate by one vote in the state legislature.  My father served in the State Legislature.  He became Editor of the Deseret News and wrote all the editorials.  In addition to being President of two missions and the First Counselor in the General YMMIA Presidency, he was the Director of Industrial Publicity and Development in the Utah government. 

b.) My education.  My college, Deep Springs, had been founded with the aspiration of producing influential leaders in government who were practical idealists.   When I came to the University of Utah, Political Science Department head G. Homer Durham persuaded me to major in Political Science; and I managed to get elected student body president.  I then continued the interest by obtaining a Ph.D. at Harvard in Political Economy and Government.

c.) Occupation.  My first major job was Administrative Assistant to Congressman Henry Aldous Dixon.

 4.      Your parents were both very distinguished and involved citizens in the state of Utah. What would you say is the most important life lesson that you learned from them?

Never lie!  Always work for the public interest, not for personal selfish interests. I learned this through their shining examples and meaningful counsel.

5.      What would you say is the biggest challenge graduating students face today? Is this challenge different from when you began your career? If yes, how?

 Getting over any entitlement mentality.  And with it, expressing more appreciation to the Lord, to parents and ancestors, to teachers, advisors, and to people who have been helpful.  If ingratitude is one of the worst sins in the eyes of God, each of us needs to be more grateful and express it more.  In my generation, the greatest challenge may have been effective career planning because there were fewer sources of advice than today.

Mark W. and Betty S. Cannon with former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and wife Jacalyn, and Winston Wilkinson, who helped Dr. Cannon with the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

 6.      What was it like working as the first administrative assistant to Chief Justice Warren E. Burger? What was the most significant reward? Challenge?

 Joyous!  The Chief Justice took me to most of his interesting meetings aside from closed meetings with Justices to decide cases.  It involved a constant flow of opportunities to make friendships with interesting people and to contribute to ideas on how to accomplish our objectives and to make friends with significant people.  He also took me to travel with him when he accepted VIP invitations to such places as the Soviet Union and China, where we had opportunities to lecture on the American political/judicial system and to discuss such issues as religious freedom.    

 7.      Throughout your distinguished career, what would you say has been your greatest accomplishment?

In relation to the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, I believe that we achieved more public education about the Constitution that had been achieved by any previous commemoration about the subject commemorated.  This started with my proposing to national honor society Phi Kappa Phi that they devote an issue of their National Forum to educate the public about the forthcoming Bicentennial of the Constitution.  Their Board agreed and asked me to be the guest editor.  I was able to obtain quality articles by top public officials including President Reagan, Speaker Tip O’Neil, and Chief Justice Burger, along with top scholars.  I then persuaded the American Bar Association to send the special issue to every lawyer who was a member.  This resulted in 557,000 families receiving this focus on the Constitution. 

Then I was drafted by the Commission to be Staff Director and won their decision to prepare serious six-week curricular units for three levels of pre-university education.  Though many said this would never be adopted in schools because of lack of interest, we developed an effective strategy and “We The People” has been taught to over 30 million students and more every year. 

Interestingly, average high school students scored higher on tests of both factual and conceptual knowledge of the Constitution than UCLA political science majors.  When Chief Justice Rehnquist invited the U.S. Senate to dinner and 98 attended, as intellectual dessert, he offered a group of high school students responding to the questions of program judges on a hypothetical church-state case.  Senators were impressed and some said, “Those high school students know more about the Constitution than we do.”

I also played a pivotal role in establishing the Madison Fellowship Program, which awards scholarship money to distinguished teachers pursuing Masters degrees. These Madison scholars gather in Washington, D.C., and are taught about the Constitution exactly as it was written by the Founding Fathers.

Mark W. Cannon

 8.      What advice would you give graduating students who are looking for a career in political science?

First of all, planning is key because it causes you to think about what is required in order to achieve different goals. Once you know what is required, you can start to take steps and pursue opportunities that will allow you to achieve these goals. Think about the future, focus on what you would like to do, and plan accordingly.

Also, make sure to always to be friendly and cordial in your relationships with other people. Never unnecessarily alienate anybody and make friends wherever you can. Control your temperament so that you develop positive relationships with those around you.

As far as the Gospel is concerned, if you are an ambitious person you are going to have to work very hard. Your ambition will put strains on family relationships and time for the Church. You must learn to put everything you do within the framework of the Gospel. Submit your ambition to the requirements of the Church – not routinely but in a sincerely committed way. There are three things to watch in order to make sure that you are not putting work pursuits over the well-being of your family:

–Family prayer
–Family scriptural reading
–Family home evening

 I am not saying that I was perfect at maintaining these things in my family, but I knew they were very important, and I did all that I could to help my children develop spiritually and intellectually.

–Tanner Camp

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