Commentary Magazine


Governing America, by Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

The Carter Years

Governing America.
by Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Simon & Schuster. 474 pp. $16.95.

Anyone whose memories of the Carter administration zig-zag from pity to contempt to wistful regret, and who is not sure why, should read this book. For Joseph Califano, ex-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, has penned a memoir that both recounts and embodies a number of the sorriest and least praiseworthy aspects of the Carter Presidency, as well as enough of the unconsummated good ideas and noble impulses gone awry to stir the embers of our disappointment that something with so much potential achieved so little.

This is the tale of Califano’s two-and-a-half years in the Cabinet: from December 21, 1976, when the voice on the telephone said, “This is Jimmy Carter. I’d like you to be my Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare,” to July 18, 1979, when, his administration in disarray and his standing in the polls very low, the President escorted Califano into the small study adjoining the Oval Office and said, “I have decided to accept your resignation.”

These thirty months would have been busy and exciting even for an ordinary mortal, but Califano, a renowned Washington workaholic and hard-driving taskmaster, crammed an enormous amount of activity into them. Simply trying to manage the vast HEW bureaucracy (from which the Education Department was split off, despite Califano’s strenuous objections, during this period) was a monumental undertaking. But the HEW Secretary was also, necessarily, in the midst of every major initiative and controversy in domestic social policy: abortion, welfare reform, national health insurance, stabilizing the Social Security system, aid for parochial schools, busing, and more.

The book is organized around such issues, but has little to say about them that is fresh or even worthwhile. The author’s homilies about containing hospital costs, the elements of meaningful welfare reform, and the immorality of abortion are mostly predictable, sometimes clarifying, occasionally banal.

What is far more interesting is that just half a year after the end of the Carter administration, a window has been opened through which we can see enough of what was going on (though only in domestic policy) to gain a better understanding of what made it tick—and why so few tears were shed when the ticking stopped.

Many memoirs will appear in the months ahead, presumably including Carter’s own. Califano’s has two advantages. He has gotten it out first, while memories are still fresh—thanks in large part to the eighteen-month headstart that his firing gave him. And, having been the key domestic-policy adviser in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, he is able to draw some illuminating comparisons between our two most recent Democratic Presidents and between the perspectives and roles of their Cabinets and staffs.

Even if we allow for the manifest awe in which Califano holds Lyndon Johnson, and for his understandable displeasure with the man who dismissed him, Carter does not come across in this book as a man who was ever really ready to be President of the United States. His celebrated attention to the most minute details of government programs and policies got him up early in the morning and kept him awake late at night. But to what end?

Lyndon Johnson would have said, “Put a welfare-reform program together that gives poor people some money and encourages people to work and keep their families together,” and left all but the key policy and political judgments to his staff. Carter read hundreds of pages of material on welfare programs and did almost everything but draft the legislation. He displayed the same fervor for total immersion in energy, the African subcontinent, tax reform, and SALT II. In addition to being President, he was, as an HEW staffer remarked after one day of my welfare-reform briefings, the highest paid assistant secretary for planning that ever put a reform proposal together.

While mastering the technicalities, Carter never figured out how to inspire, horsetrade, inveigle, embarrass, or coax his major social-policy proposals through the Congress. Seemingly he did not like, or trust, or understand its leaders and its folkways. Hence the following exchange could take place in the aftermath of a productive session between Califano and Senate Finance Committee chairman Russell Long, who was keen to get the first part of a national health-insurance program in place prior to the 1980 election:

I told the President about our conversation and urged him to see Long. He was reluctant. “Do you understand him when he talks?” Carter asked, adding, “I never can understand him. And then I never know what he’s going to do—except screw me most of the time.”

Even more dismaying is the depth of cynicism, verging on political amorality, on the part of a chief executive whose main asset was said to be his basic decency. Califano describes a Cabinet meeting in July 1979 after the President returned from his protracted “retreat” at Camp David determined to purge and renew his administration:

Carter wanted us also to fill out personnel evaluations of each of our key staff members. Hamilton Jordan would distribute some “tough forms” to fill out on each one. He wanted us to review the work of our subordinates, and “get rid of all those who are incompetent, except minorities and women.” No woman or minority member could be fired; their situations were to be discussed with the White House, the President said.

Is it any wonder that, in the light of such qualities as are here revealed, even many of those who abhor the policies of Jimmy Carter’s successor have few regrets that he is gone?

_____________

 

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. naturally wishes us to think him a better HEW Secretary than Jimmy Carter was a President. After all, he was unceremoniously dumped—notwithstanding Carter’s judgment that he had “been the best Secretary of HEW”—and he has his reputation to consider. Besides, though Carter may be finished as a political leader, it is doubtful that we have seen the last of his former Secretary, who is as plausible a choice as any to help lead the Democratic party out of the wilderness in which it now wanders.

But where would he lead it? The map provided in this book is clear enough, and depressing. Califano has never gotten past the basic lessons he learned at the knee of Lyndon Johnson in the heyday of the Great Society: there is no problem that cannot be solved by the federal government nor any that should not be. All that is needed is leadership, imagination, and hard work. The possibility seems never to have crossed his mind that worthy goals sometimes clash and that solutions sometimes give rise to new problems that may be more vexing than those they were devised to cure. There is a breathtaking disingenuousness to some of Califano’s pronouncements and—for a man so intelligent—an astonishing refusal to see the incompatibility in many of his views.

One large blind spot concerns civil-rights enforcement in the field of education. Califano devotes a full chapter to his own efforts to stamp out every last vestige of discrimination by schools and colleges. We learn that had he not heckled the Attorney General and the White House, the Carter administration would have come out on the side of Allan Bakke in his reverse-discrimination suit against the University of California Medical School at Davis. We read of his relentless efforts to desegregate the state university system of North Carolina, despite the enormous political difficulties that those efforts (combined with his anti-smoking campaign) posed for Carter in the Tarheel State. Yet without missing a beat, without suggesting even the possibility of inconsistency, the very next chapter is a paean to academic freedom, collegiate self-governance, and the importance of federal nonintervention in educational decision-making, particularly at the post-secondary level:

It is doubtful that any college, or university in America can survive in the 1980’s without federal assistance. That fact alone calls for the construction of legal safeguards to preserve academic independence and freedom of inquiry as permanent and impenetrable as we can devise. Financial need must not subvert academic freedom and unwittingly create a national university system subservient to the federal government. . . .

A perceptive observation, viewed alone, but more than a little hypocritical coming from a man who just a few pages earlier has been patting himself on the back for his success in getting the Carter administration to press for “race-sensitive” university admissions policies.

Unfortunately, the problem runs deeper than textual inconsistencies. It is embedded in the world view of many who lost the 1980 elections, and—unless the Republicans make some enormous blunders—it is apt to keep losing future elections for them. This is a smugness about the efficacy of government in general and the federal government in particular to right wrongs, solve problems, cure ills, and prevent hardships.

To be sure, the possibility of human fallibility within government is acknowledged. Califano’s entire memoir could even be described as a series of object lessons with the benefit of hindsight. If only Carter had not insisted on a zero price tag for his welfare-reform plan; if only Califano had had a “more sophisticated grasp of the political code words on abortion”; if only Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell had held regular meetings with Cabinet members rather than taking potshots at them through the press; if only the President had not beeen obsessed with “leaks”; if only the National Education Association had not been allowed to exert so much influence on policy; if only Senator Kennedy had been willing to compromise on health insurance. If only. . . .

_____________

 

But all the lessons concern tactics, procedures, personalities, and techniques. Califano has, in a word, missed the point. The reason the Carter administration accomplished so little and is so little missed is not primarily that Jimmy Carter was a less adroit technician than Lyndon Johnson. It is that neither Carter nor his able lieutenants—and Califano was certainly among the ablest—ever figured out that Washington had overreached itself; that its expenditures, its intrusions, and its ambitions had exceeded what the nation wanted; that a few miles west of the Potomac, north of the White House, and south of the monumental new HEW headquarters was a country with scant enthusiasm for more government programs, national health insurance, comprehensive welfare reform, a separate Department of Education, race-conscious admissions and employment policies, bans on smoking, or new controls on the behavior of hospitals, schools, and social-service agencies. It is incredible that an administration that paid such close attention to Patrick Caddell’s opinion polls did not realize how out of step it was with the mood of the nation.

The Republicans figured this out in plenty of time. While Carter was firing Califano and otherwise rearranging the furniture of his Presidency in the summer of 1979, peeking at Senator Kennedy over one shoulder and the National Education Association over the other, Ronald Reagan was preparing a brilliant campaign against the excesses of government which the incumbents had come to personify.

That campaign continues in the early summer of 1981, and its own latent excesses are now beginning to appear. Most worrisome of these are the suggestions that the federal government cannot do anything without making a hash of things; that it is inherently inept, if not actually evil; that there is no problem so acute as to justify a federal solution; and that at least in the domain of domestic social policy, we would all be better off if the national government would pack its bags and go away.

This view of Washington as dodderingly incompetent is no more accurate than the perception of Washington as omnipotent, and the spectacle of Richard Schweiker slashing away at “categorical” programs is hardly more reassuring than the sight of Joseph Califano staying up into the wee hours trying to create more of them. But it is Schweiker’s—and Reagan’s—turn, at least for a while, and it is to be hoped that whatever lessons are theirs to be learned will be absorbed before the opportunity is lost.

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