The Buck Stops Here

Governing America: An Insider's Report from the White House and the Cabinet

by Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Simon and Schuster, 474 pp., $16.95

Joseph A.Califano
Joseph A.Califano; drawing by David Levine

Joseph Califano ends his account of his travails as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of health, education, and welfare with the warning, “What we should fear above all is the judgment of God and history if the most affluent people on earth…choose not to govern justly, distribute our riches fairly and help the most vulnerable among us—or worse, choose not even to try.”

But to a large degree, that seems to have become the disposition of the administration that has since inherited Washington—to retire that presumption about what government should do. It has now become a commonplace that the Reagan presidency is embarked on nothing less than rescinding the last half-century of government in America—most of the innovations that have taken place since Franklin Roosevelt radically altered the idea of the federal purpose, from the passively custodial to the actively interventionist.

That activism was compelled out of emergency, but it shortly became the orthodox theology—that government is meant to intercede vigorously and benignly in the lives of its citizens: in short, to do good. It was an impulse that carried from Roosevelt through the Eisenhower administration, which itself set up the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—and reached its spectacular climax with the Great Society, and Lyndon Johnson’s untidy profusion of benevolent compulsions. Even Richard Nixon did not seriously tamper with the notion. In Jimmy Carter’s version, what was wanted was a government that was “courteous”—which always seemed a rather odd proposition.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that Carter was an aberration—a political atavism produced by Watergate—in what had already begun to gather after Lyndon Johnson as a great popular recoil from that urge lasting since Roosevelt—arising out of a vast exhausted backwash of spirit and belief. Three decades after Roosevelt, there was a despairing not just over whether government should do good, but whether it even could.

Perhaps more than any other institution in Washington, HEW had become the creature of that idea of doing good, that ambition of government. And running it, as Califano writes, was “the position in government which, next to the President, offered more opportunity to do good than any other.” Indeed, it became almost an alter-government in itself—a colossal bureaucracy with a budget, by 1980, of $200 billion, larger than that of any nation in the world except the US and the Soviet Union. Just since the inception of the Great Society, it had expanded more than 3,500 percent. One indication of Washington’s elaborating commitment to benevolent activism was that, in 1963, HEW shared only 18 percent of the federal largesse, while 43 percent went to defense; by 1980, that had startlingly shifted to 36 percent for HEW, 24 percent for defense.

It was all a measure of the government’s staggering ambition to rectify the complex inequities of life itself—to minister, as Califano explains, to “those who had suffered from personal tragedies or the failures of…

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