- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

Joseph A. Califano Jr. became perhaps the ultimate Washington insider during the 30 years he spent in our nation’s capital until 1990, when he left to pursue his private vision. His book “Inside: A Public and Private Life” paints a vivid picture of the day-to-day life of America’s highest-level movers and shakers, accompanied by periodic snapshots of the author’s own psyche.

Mr. Califano was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1931, the only child of an Italian-American father and an Irish-American mother. He grew up rooting for the Dodgers and playing a variety of street games, some of which were quite brutal. His devoutly Catholic family was imbued with an intense work ethic which he inherited in full measure.

Joseph A. Califano Sr. worked for IBM for 39 years, rising to a senior administrative position, while his wife taught in public school. Young Joe went through the Catholic educational system all the way through his graduation from Holy Cross College. Following his parents’ injunction to take up a profession, he decided that law was “the least undesirable option,” and went on to Harvard Law School. His proudly independent father forbade him to accept a scholarship.

Mr. Califano was impressed, but not intimidated, by the rigor of the law school curriculum and by the intellectual and social caliber of his classmates. He made the Harvard Law Review and graduated near the top of his class, his ambition fired after learning that “graduates were cabinet members … ran large law firms and giant corporations … sat on the Supreme Court … There was nothing I couldn’t do, it seemed.”

After fulfilling his draft obligation, which he used to hone his legal skills in the Navy judge advocate general’s office, Mr. Califano joined a leading Wall Street law firm, where he soon grew bored. Inspired by JFK’s presidential candidacy, he volunteered for the Democrat’s campaign. After the election, he was offered a position as special assistant to Cyrus Vance, who had become general counsel of the Defense Department, and joined the ranks of the famous “whiz kids” serving in the Pentagon under Robert McNamara.

He was a key player when the federal government sent troops to integrate the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama, and later in ensuring the peaceful outcome of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington. In a rare courtroom appearance, he represented the United States in an international inquiry into riots in the Canal Zone in Panama, earning plaudits for his vigorous and successful attempts to place the blame on the Panamanians. As the Vietnam War escalated, Mr. McNamara began to route most decisions on other issues to Mr. Califano.

In July 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, always on the search for new young talent, took him away from the Pentagon and put him in charge of his domestic policy-making apparatus, which involved putting together detailed plans for the Great Society and shepherding them through Congress. Mr. Califano learned LBJ’s uniquely effective brand of all-embracing persuasion, coercion and hardball politics from the master himself.

Mr. Califano had already proven himself no slouch when it came to working for Mr. McNamara, who arrived at the office every day at 6:30 a.m., stayed until late at night, and expected his staff to do the same. When Mr. Califano told him that those hours prevented him from ever seeing his young children, Mr. McNamara grudgingly permitted him to come to work at 8.

LBJ was even more demanding. Upset one morning when Mr. Califano could not take a phone call from him because he was in the bathroom, the president immediately sent the Army Signal Corps to install a phone there.

When riots erupted nationwide following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., LBJ insisted that Mr. Califano move into the White House to help direct the government’s response to the emergency, leaving his wife and two young children at home while Washington was burning.

With his marriage under strain and the constant tension of working for Lyndon Johnson, he left the government after the 1968 elections to become a partner in the prominent law firm of Arnold and Porter. Shortly thereafter, the firm fell into disarray after a majority vote rejected the proposed return of its former partner, Abe Fortas, who had resigned in disgrace from the Supreme Court.

Mr. Califano left to join super-lawyer Edward Bennett Williams in a new firm where law and politics were intertwined. He was the attorney for the Washington Post when it published the Pentagon Papers, and, as the Democratic Party’s general counsel, responded to the Watergate break-in by filing a lawsuit against the Committee to Re-elect the President. Later, he encouraged the Washington Post to unleash the Woodward-Bernstein investigation that eventually brought down President Richard Nixon.

When Jimmy Carter became president, Mr. Califano became Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. His vigorous attack on smoking did not go down well with the president, and when the latter, after his famous “national malaise” speech, asked all his cabinet members to submit their resignations, Mr. Califano’s was the first one he actually accepted.

Mr. Califano separated from his wife in 1979, and in the early 1980s the couple divorced. Shortly thereafter, he married Hilary Byers, the widowed daughter of William D. Paley, the longtime head of CBS. Ten years after the couple’s civil ceremony, he had his first marriage annulled so they could have a religious wedding.

Dreaming of emulating the legendary Washington lawyer Clark Clifford, Mr. Califano started a new firm together with several younger partners. The firm flourished, but he found himself unsatisfied with being restricted to the practice of law. Leading political figures variously urged him to run for the Senate in New York and New Jersey and for vice president on the independent ticket headed by John Anderson, but he declined all these opportunities. His young partners left, and he folded the rest of the firm into Dewey, Ballantine, the Wall Street firm where he had started out.

He left to establish and lead the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, which found a home at Columbia University. During the 1990s, he applied his customary aggressiveness to wage two successful campaigns against his own afflictions, first colon cancer then prostate cancer.

Mr. Califano peppers his book with many surprising revelations. He tells us that Lyndon Johnson believed JFK’s assassination was not a one-man operation, as the Warren Commission concluded, but Fidel Castro’s revenge against Robert Kennedy’s attempts to eliminate him. He reports the contradiction between the glowing report Jimmy Carter gave him of his service as HEW secretary and the bad-mouthing account Mr. Carter gave to the press immediately thereafter. And he relates his advice to Alexander Haig, during Watergate, that President Nixon should burn the incriminating tapes.

He discusses his constant concern for his Catholic beliefs, which often led him to consult theologians. Fortunately, he and his chosen adviser found a mutually acceptable solution each time, whether it was the way he and his first wife dealt with a temporary problem of infertility, how he formulated regulations dealing with abortion, or the annulment of his 23-year-long marriage blessed with three children.

Most interesting to the observer of American politics, though, is his reconciliation of the hardball tactics used by Lyndon Johnson and himself with the ends they sought and largely achieved. Looking back 40 years later, he describes the Great Society as “a revolution … Only at the dawn of the twenty-first century did historians — and Americans generally — begin to recognize how [LBJ’s] domestic achievements had reshaped the nation for the better.”

He quotes President Johnson’s eloquent remarks that “the essence of government lies with unceasing concern for the welfare and dignity and decency … of life for every individual.” Mr. Califano does not ask how those noble sentiments apply to dealings with political or legal adversaries.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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