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 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.

And finally Carter himself, pressed once on the abortion issue, voiced the very theme of the coming reaction against all that HEW was founded for, the mood that would mean the end of his own administration’s last vague Indian summer of liberal activism in American government: “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair…. I don’t believe that the federal government should act to try to make these opportunities exactly equal….” Califano professes to have been astounded when he learned of this remark. But the fact is, Carter in more attitudes than one—his posturings against “big government,” his increasingly constricting preoccupation with inflation—was himself an early part of the political reaction that elected Ronald Reagan. This was perhaps no more pronounced than in his obsession with frugality—what could be called the old linear economics, replacing the sophisticated abstract arts economics of the Keynesians. Carter’s proposed hybrid of a government that was both “compassionate” and parsimonious helped produce the construction that effectively paralyzed his administration—particularly, as Califano tells it, HEW.

It was the central hang in the impasse between Carter and Senator Kennedy over national health insurance—the “Holy Grail of liberal Democratic politics,” as Califano styles it. The differences between Carter and Kennedy began over whether a comprehensive national health program should be introduced immediately, as Kennedy insisted, or in fiscally judicious phases. Kennedy’s proposal, Califano maintains, was far less nuanced than Carter’s, less conditionally tuned and staggered in coverage and payment ratios, less mixed between the private and government sectors—and could have cost more than $80 billion. (For a review of this particular battle, see the following account by Toby Cohen.) Altogether, it afforded Carter’s budgetary scruples deep cramps. “I will not do anything,” he protested, “to undermine my current effort to control inflation.”

In addition, while Kennedy eventually accepted the functional principle of phasing, he still demanded a single bill instead of one submitted piecemeal to Congress. His concern was that any national health program—left to a protracted and staged pilgrimage through the congressional thicket of special interests, and made contingent at any point on the vicissitudes of the economy—would almost certainly be shredded away by attrition into only an incidental semblance of what it had once been. The only way to avoid that attrition was to commit the nation to all of it, at once.

But in all this, Califano declares, Carter and Kennedy were actually locked in an illusionary struggle over a mirage. National health insurance had become a matter toward which the humor of Congress, and even more the nation, ranged from indifferent to sulfurous. Califano himself advised Carter, “There is little stomach on the Hill for any national health legislation this year, except for Kennedy,” and reports that legislators marveled to him that “the only person the President seemed to be talking to was Kennedy, and Kennedy was out of touch with the Congress.”

It ended as yet another miscarried offensive—a heavy striving finally dwindling off into blankness. It prompts in Califano a last, listless, almost abjectly modest speculation: ‘We may be better off as a nation giving an awakened and aroused private sector a chance to function for the next several years, perhaps under a broad mandate that employers provide a minimum level of health benefits for their employees.” In that second thought of Califano’s there is more than a little of the mood of Reagan’s new Washington.

In HEW’s civil rights endeavors, there was the same quality of a play obliviously being performed in the twilight in an emptied amphitheater. Since the grand civil rights campaigns and legislation of the Sixties, the more obscure and complicated labor of actually administering equality of rights had passed to HEW—specifically, its Office for Civil Rights. But the studied inertia of the Nixon and Ford years had left that office, through default and subsequent litigation, largely in the hands of the courts. In trying to revive the energies of the OCR, Califano faced the substantial political impediment of that popular exhaustion of will and heart with all the great social adventures of the Sixties—and Carter’s fine sensing of that exhaustion.

The expectations stirred by the civil rights offensives of the Sixties had ramified by now to such issues, says Califano, as whether high schools could limit girls’ basketball to half court. “The proliferation of protected groups contributed enormously to the exasperation of middle-class white America with the civil rights movement,…pressed by so many claims for relief, from so many different groups, in such varied forms.” More, a new mood had emerged in the country since the civil rights dramas of the Sixties, the mood of people who now had to deal, in their own lives, often painfully, with the impacts of those triumphs, with no more than the dimmest recollection of what those great moral struggles were like. That world of brute discrimination had now become for many as remote and alien as the Depression. A different public was having to deal with the awkward outcome of those early efforts to make blacks full citizens. The efforts to remedy centuries of dispossession by integrating schools and taking “affirmative action” were jagged, dislocating. The moralities of the matter seemed not nearly so passionately simple and palpable.

In all this, Califano became increasingly dubious about Carter’s actual resolve, sensed in him a certain political ambivalence. “That was the major uncertainty as I moved to rekindle the civil rights effort at HEW—the attitude of Jimmy Carter…. I never heard Carter speak privately with the burning conviction, much less the passion, of Lyndon Johnson about civil rights or race in America…. His desire was to appease constituencies.” For him appointments were the ideal and least discommoding gesture, Carter’s record in that—blacks, women—was unprecedentedly lavish.

But the moment of testing arrived with the Bakke case—a suit by a thirty-seven-year-old white engineer to gain admission to the medical school of the University of California at Davis, which had excluded him under an affirmative action policy of reserved admissions for minorities. The suit, when it reached the Supreme Court, was perceived by Califano as an elemental challenge to the affirmative-action principle, and he found the response of Attorney General Griffin Bell’s Justice Department myopically legalistic. The department’s brief, says Califano, “rejected distinctions between the permissible use of race (to remedy past discrimination) and its impermissible use (to exclude blacks or Hispanics, for example). It rested its logic on the ‘overriding principle…that race is…presumptively pernicious as a basis on which to bestow or withhold benefits.’…any race-sensitive program was indeed ‘presumptively unconstitutional.’ ”

Califano, in what was perhaps his most gallant moment in the administration, appealed to Carter: “The most serious problem this nation continues to face is racism…this problem still plagues our society. It pervades every aspect of social activity….” And without affirmative-action programs, Califano maintained, “there is simply no way—for at least a decade and perhaps a generation—to give minorities an opportunity…. I believe you will make the most serious mistake of your administration in domestic policy to date if you permit the Justice Department to file the Bakke brief in the form I read it…. There are few, if any, more persistent, significant, or intractable problems that will touch your presidency at home than the problem of race in America.”

But Carter proved exquisitely elusive on the issue. “All throughout the public and private furor,” reports Califano, “the President gave us no indication where he stood…. He withdrew to [Attorney General] Bell and his immediate staff.” What emerged finally was a somewhat more spirited brief that rejected the “presumptive unconstitutionality” of affirmative-action programs, endorsed their application, and urged the Supreme Court to return Bakke’s appeal to California courts for reconsideration. The Supreme Court then, in a marble-cake verdict, upheld the principle of affirmative action, but not in the form of quotas—and directed that Bakke be admitted. But when Carter had announced at HEW early in his administration, “There will never be any attempt while I am President to weaken the great civil rights acts that have passed in years gone by,” Califano notes dryly, “He meant what he said, and not much more.”

Nothing expressed so eloquently the final bafflements Califano encountered at HEW—and indeed, what seemed to have become of the whole idea of activist, altruistic government—as the efforts for welfare reform. Welfare was an enterprise at the very center of that idea—“to help provide for those,” as Califano observes, “who cannot provide for themselves the means to live in human dignity and with peace of mind.” But by the time of Carter’s administration, it had become a complex arabesque of agencies and programs, dispensing some $30 billion a year in benefits—Aid to Families with Dependent Children; the Supplemental Security Income Program for the aged, blind, and disabled; the Food Stamp program; the Earned Income Tax Credit for those families with too meager an income to be taxed; and General Assistance, mostly for impoverished single persons and childless couples. These benefits often overlapped, and the whole system was intermingled with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. It represented, all together, a $160 billion endeavor by the federal government to do good. But it was also the most embattled of those efforts, with the most bizarrely mixed results—seeming often to act to disrupt families, depress the will to work, to mortify those it was meant to rescue.

“Welfare reform,” says Califano, “was, along with ‘a government as decent and competent as the American people,’ a constant commitment of Jimmy Carter’s candidacy.” Carter vowed to simplify radically the whole Brobdingnagian system, to edit out its built-in devices for waste and fraud, and especially to amend its “present antiwork, antifamily” aspects. But if national health insurance had become the Holy Grail of liberal politics in America, welfare reform had proved its Slough of Despond—the dismal swamp into which, in Senator Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “many proposals have gone but few have emerged.”

Nevertheless, Califano hoped that “if we started big and the President stayed with it, we’d have a chance…. I urged Carter to ‘announce your intention to scrap the entire welfare system,’ consolidate AFDC, SSI, and food stamps into a single cash assistance program,…set up a special new employment program targeted on the welfare population.” This entire approach would be so calculated that “a person would always make more money in the private sector than in a special public service employment job, and anyone would make more money working than on welfare.”

In this initiative, Califano immediately encountered that protective barnacling of special interests, and their assorted custodial congressional committees, that this system of benevolence had grown around itself over the years. Indeed, as Califano points out, “twelve of the thirteen Cabinet departments” were involved in some form of welfare, as were “119 of the more than 300 congressional committees and subcommittees.” It quickly became a matter of myriad intramural bureaucratic skirmishes over fractional purchases on the territory of the system. “The Agriculture Committee opposed cashing out the food stamp program, even for the aged, blind, and disabled…. Agriculture had jurisdiction over stamps; Ways and Means over cash…. The jobs program was running into trouble from labor unions, who were concerned that it would become a substitute for other jobs programs.” When Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia Harris learned of a Califano proposal to reassess rent supplements, she “was enraged,” says Califano. “She accused me of trying to take over her housing programs.”

But these bureaucratic frays were taking place in what, for liberal government, were like the last days of the Roman imperial court as the barbarian tides surged down from the north. There was more than an intimation of the change in the national mood in the Proposition 13 vote in California. Califano was advised by Tom Foley, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, “Joe, you’ve got to bury that damn welfare bill. With this vote in California, these guys will destroy it on the floor.” Califano now acknowledges, “There is no strong constituency for welfare recipients…. And [that] collides with the sad reality that Americans are simply not willing to invest the significant sums necessary for comprehensive welfare reform.” Hamilton Jordan himself at one point noted to the president, “The mood of the country is passive….”

But what turned out to be the mortal complication in it all was again Jimmy Carter’s own fixation on frugality—in this case, improbably, zero-cost basing.

Carter gazed at me as though I had missed his point. “I want a welfare program that doesn’t cost anything more,” he said.

“Mr. President, I don’t think it’s possible to put together any program like that which makes sense or has a chance of passing,” I responded.

The President’s eyes were cold, his voice was soft but stern. “I want you to give me a comprehensive program at no additional cost.”

Later at a press conference, Carter announced, “One of the requirements I have laid down…is no additional cost above what we have now.” Califano argues, befuddlingly, that the long-term efficiency of welfare reform would in the short run be forbiddingly expensive to effect. He came to suspect that Carter “enjoyed, and found politically advantageous, his tight-fisted posture as opposed to the position of his liberal HEW secretary.”

Before long, says Califano, “I had a sense that the intrinsic complexity [of any welfare reform] was distasteful to Carter. He wanted a ‘simplified program,’ and I could feel his frustration as the realization came over him that no such reform was possible.” There finally evolved a 136-page bill that then had to be dispatched through a congressional gauntlet of some six committees. But Califano began to detect, in this formidably difficult enterprise Carter had committed him to, signs of a deep queasiness in Carter himself. “In separate interviews, two senior White House aides had told the [Washington] Post they did not believe welfare reform could pass in the current session of Congress.” This prompted a protest from Congressman James Corman, chairman of the Special Welfare Reform Subcommittee: “What the hell are we doing batting our brains out? I can’t believe the administration would be putting us through what they are…if they’re not serious about getting welfare reform.”

Califano’s suspicion grew that Carter, “confronted with the perilous and unpopular politics of welfare reform” even while he was being belabored by the Bert Lance affair, “had decided to cut his losses and back off from a plan he now saw as too liberal.” There was some truth in this, but the larger truth is that the Carter presidency, in whole, was simply an accidental, artificial happening, out of joint with the times. And it finally became evident to Califano that, on welfare reform, “the President no longer cared…. In the wake of Proposition 13, Carter was determined to regain his frugal, budget-balancing image.” After one more attempt to renovate the program in 1978, “welfare reform was once again dead.”

Califano’s disenchantments steadily accumulated. On education: “I came to HEW enthusiastic about the opportunity to improve education in America, and determined to step up federal funding sharply. I left alarmed over the deterioration of public education in America and troubled by the threat to academic freedom that the federal role, enlarged and shaped by special interests, poses.’

Califano at HEW found no special interest factions quite so fierce as those on abortion, which threatened “to consume my energies to the detriment of other programs,” and it was in this confounding question that Califano—a Catholic—arrived at perhaps his final uneasiness about activist government. With this matter, the Rooseveltian impulse at last—and perhaps inevitably—had passed from the political into the regions of the metaphysical, reaching into the mysterious quick of life itself. “What haunted me more than any economic controversy,” Califano writes, “was how HEW’s deepening involvement in health care, delivery, and research had led to its involvement in profound moral and ethical questions, often literal questions of life and death, and how little thought we as a nation had given to this development.”

In this particular conflict over the regulations and funding of abortion, Califano was confronted by what seemed the ultimate problem in the extension of the governmental urge to do good—a truly phantasmagorical evolution: “Questions people once sought to have answered by prayer, issues once left for scientists to resolve in their laboratories, are now debated on the floor of Congress, by the brethren on the Supreme Court, thrown into the executive branch regulatory process….”

He came away from his Laocoönian struggle over abortion at HEW “with profound concern about the capacity of national government…to resolve issues so personal and so laced with individual, moral, and ethical values.” It was the sort of disillusionment that, chain-reacting, would involve the very premise of HEW.

It is hard to discern, from Califano’s account, precisely what offense led to his final sacking by Carter—assertiveness, contentiousness, perhaps just an undisguisable absence of esteem for Carter. But far more importantly, from the exuberant architect himself of much Great Society legislation, Califano ended his tenure at HEW with what sounds almost like a Reaganesque manifesto of despair over the efficacy of Rooseveltian government. “I felt the frustration, sometimes anger, of failure: in welfare reform, national health, and the difficulty of erasing racial discrimination…. Intricate federal regulations…in turn encourage even lengthier and more specific rules as state, local and private institutions scramble to comply…. People trying to help each other feel suffocated, frustrated…as their freedom to act on matters they face each day is increasingly circumscribed. The ability of our institutions and our nation to change, the key to so much of our human and economic progress, is dangerously inhibited.”

It is a sobering testament coming from such a man—a disillusionment that explains, in fact, much of what’s happened since. And it poses a larger, grim question: have the costs and clumsiness and complications of government’s social exertions over the past four decades caused the nation at last irrevocably to weary of the old dream—as old as our very inception—of doing good, of being just? If so, we have arrived at a perilous moment—because the deep and combustible desperations and estrangements in our society will hardly be dissipated by Reagan’s wholesale cuts in the nation’s social programs. The true cost of those economics could indeed prove devastating. That is the danger of the exhaustion and impatience betrayed finally even by Califano in his troubling chronicle.

This Issue

October 8, 1981