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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 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 our social policy…to fight discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, sex, handicap, and age…to solve human problems that other institutions…had failed to solve….” HEW seemed an effort to encompass all life with programs, “issues that touched tradition, moral conviction, education of children, civil rights, dependency, illness, busing, welfare, family life, abortion,…drugs, mental health, alcohol, and teenage sex,” a range of attentions extending even to providing “assistance for blind vendors.”

Such “numerous compassionate assignments,” as he puts it, were a true enthusiasm of Califano’s. As it happened, Califano himself, working as Lyndon Johnson’s domestic affairs adviser, had fashioned much of the Great Society’s body of legislation, and so came, in a sense, to preside over his own handiwork. As the possibility of his appointment to HEW began to quicken, he declared to Tip O’Neill, “I’m interested in that job. I’d like to prove that HEW can be run, that those Great Society programs can work.” He instinctively aspired to continue the Rooseveltian idea of government—“the programs of the New Deal and Great Society and the enormous social commitment of the American people.”

It was that last element that proved the problem. Califano’s was an enthusiasm the American people had grown weary of. The impulse that had begun with FDR had ended now in a labyrinth of social and bureaucratic complications producing a popular disillusionment with the very impulse itself—a barging impatience to discard the whole idea. Califano’s chronicle of his own struggles and founderings at HEW tells us much—more than he seems aware—about why that idea had foundered.

In the long run, Califano may finally amount to little more than a marginal Cabinet officer in what will surely be regarded as one of the minor presidencies in American history. But he could not have been a more confirmed regular of the eastern liberal estate that has acted as the principal curator of the Roosevelt idea through the last several decades. Emerging from the Democratic politics of New York City, he had passed from the inner councils of the Great Society to the powerful Washington law firm of that abiding gray grandee of the party since Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, Clark Clifford. But ironically, in the course of recounting his beleaguered career at HEW, Califano himself winds up, wittingly or not, partaking of the same frustrations, the same exasperations, that collected eventually into a national retreat from governmental activism, and delivered forth at last Ronald Reagan. Califano’s is an unsettling tale.

One question left by that tale is whether any bureaucracy, no matter how benignly conceived, does not soon take on a self-interest and life of its own wholly isolated from those it was meant to serve. At the least, Califano shows us that bureaucracies are a kind of organic form that one suspects could have outlasted the dinosaurs—they acquire a thick, stubborn survivability that could endure through glacial ages intact.

HEW—with all the intercessions of its ambition to amend social inequities wherever possible—inevitably induced a popular reflex to look to the government for relief. Expectations proliferated to the point where, as Califano reports, “scores of high school girls (and a few parents) had alleged that to require girls to wear brassieres without a similar dress regulation for boys constituted sex discrimination in violation of Title IX [of the Education Amendments of 1972].” This occasions in Califano a peculiarly dour reflection for an HEW secretary: “We become victims of the self-defeating and self-fulfilling premise that unless we are protected by a law or regulation we are vulnerable.”

It was precisely that main enterprise of HEW—to protect by law and regulation—that created its own protective carapace, as it were, of myriad constituencies, factional interests, and over forty congressional committees and subcommittees representing those interests. It had grown its own political antibodies, which balked any attempts to disturb their creator. “The matter of turf,” reports Califano, produced vicious skirmishes within the government itself, while outside government, “single-issue groups subvert the ability of the political system to compromise, regroup and move forward…. What is pernicious…is that we have institutionalized, in law and in bureaucracy, single-interest organizations…,” all culminating in a “molecular politics” which has “the centrifugal force to tear the national interest apart.”

Indeed, it would be hard to find a more elaborate compendium than Califano’s book of so many great gray battles ending in vagueness and inconclusiveness. Nevertheless, Califano—who describes himself as “a bureaucratic child of the 1960s,”—recites his grapplings with the government’s bureaucratic minotaur with a strangely buoyant gusto, and is given to quoting his own vigorous remarks such as “Like hell it’s impossible.” He shared that implicit assumption of bureaucratic activism that everything finally was just a question of “management”—that was “the key to making social programs work.” It was only a matter of how to administrate good—of technique: “We must design bureaucratic structures….” He occasionally repairs to that denatured language of bureaucracy, whose animating metaphysic is that of the functional—as when, on abortion, he resorts to an uneasy abstraction about when “the fetus can be viable.” He is altogether occupied with the games of governing.

He went into such confrontations as his initiative to overhaul HEW with an almost breathless glee: “Secrecy was particularly important…. I announced the plan on March 8, six weeks after assuming office. Out of the confused organization, we created five functional operating divisions.” He betrays a peculiar exuberance for the “arduous journey of thousands of bureaucratic miles,” is full of excitement for such action as “reorganizing operations along functional lines and streamlining the hierarchy.”

In these technician’s enthusiasms, he was not dissimilar to the man who brought him into the office at HEW. But Califano and Carter seemed a rather odd conjunction. Carter had delivered himself into the presidency largely on a campaign against the Washington establishment, only then to appoint one of the fixtures of that establishment. Califano. For his part, Califano found Carter, from the first, a curious article. Despite certain admirable sentiments—such as his inextinguishable eagerness to “get out of Washington and see what the country was really like”—Carter carried what Califano calls (most grievous of offenses to a nature like Califano’s) “the odor of naivete.” Califano incredulously reports that Carter’s staff even “appeared to believe the anti-Washington rhetoric that had carried Carter to the White House.” When Califano arrived at Sea Island, Georgia, for the first gathering of the Cabinet after the election, one can only guess the expression on his face when he discovered in his room “a small book of religious poems written by LaBelle Lance, the wife of…Bert.”

Not surprisingly, the shade of Lyndon Johnson pervades Califano’s story, and he is constantly casting Carter against that memory—to his unfailing disappointment: “Carter’s disdain of the political aspects of the appointment process sharply contrasted with the enthusiasm of Lyndon Johnson…. Kennedy then spoke in a tone so insistent it was almost disdainful of the President. Certainly no one had ever talked to Lyndon Johnson that way…. I thought to myself how much more limited Carter’s strategic sense and vision were than Johnson’s….”

One reason for Carter’s irredeemable meagerness in the presidency, Califano suggests, was that he persisted in looking on the world as merely a magnification of his past experience in Georgia; he compulsively measured what confronted him as president against the realities of his modest political origins. Advised that it would be difficult for the government to create new jobs immediately for many of the under-educated who were on welfare, Carter snapped, “Why? Sixty percent of the people who work in Plains are high school drop-outs. They work.”

The terminal fallacy of the Carter presidency, Califano testifies, was that it was “unable or unwilling to switch gears from campaigning to governing.” Califano quotes Carter as complaining once in the declining fitful days of his presidency, “Washington, DC, has become an island. The gap between our citizens and government has never been so wide.” Yet Carter, as president, was irrevocably stranded on that very island of power and special interests against which he had inveighed during his campaign—although he remained captured in those campaign evangelisms and calculations nevertheless. He could never quite bring himself, solitary as president, to turn from the obsolete campaign script to engage the bear of power.

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