Behind that bland, all-purpose title is the first cabinet-level inside story of the Carter administration; and it's not...



Behind that bland, all-purpose title is the first cabinet-level inside story of the Carter administration; and it's not noncommital. Joe Califano presents himself as a poor Italian kid from Brooklyn who rose, via Harvard Law School and fancy law firms, to domestic advisor for Lyndon Johnson and yearned to be Secretary of the (then) Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. With the election of Jimmy Carter, Califano got his wish--and a lot more trouble than he bargained for. He wants us to appreciate, first, how enormous HEW was (only the US and USSR had bigger budgets) and how impossible it was to satisfy all the HEW constituencies. Issue by issue (abortion, health, civil rights, etc.), Califano depicts himself as the man in the middle, sincerely trying to help the poor, the sick, the elderly, and frustrated by naive men in the White House, by single-issue advocates, by the sheer immobility of the HEW bureaucracy--along with the most nagging problem of any HEW head: the simple weakness, politically and economically, of the people HEW serves. Because he wanted the job so badly, Califano overlooked Carter's repeated emphases on the advantages (apropos of ""family issues"") of having a Catholic HEW Secretary; but even his early impressions of the Carter White House are laced with references to ""disingenuousness."" Speaking for all the Cabinet members, he affirms his dislike for Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell, who sniped at the Cabinet through the press. The lines in his case were drawn early, when Jordan and Powell, as keepers of Carter's reelection flame, objected to some of Califano's first appointments as politically inopportune; and things got worse after that. Part of the tension was generated by the climate of competition between Carter and Kennedy--almost tangible here in Califano's recreation of the debates on a national health plan. While Kennedy lined up labor support for a plan that Califano believed could never pass Congress, Carter and his HEW chief molded a more modest plan (in keeping with Carter's budgetary self-restraint) that looked bad by comparison. On the other side, Carter wanted to make good on a campaign pledge to the National Education Association for a separate Department of Education, which Califano opposed from fear of excessive federal interference in educational policy. Politics being what it is, the White House got its way and Califano had to go along. (LBJ is portrayed, by comparison, as a great tactician in relations with Congress and a stern but consistent leader of his staff and Cabinet.) As the Carter administration deteriorated, the sniping increased. Describing a poisonous Cabinet meeting shortly after the President's ""malaise"" speech--at which anyone guilty of leaking secrets to the press, or of disloyalty (a pointed glare at Treasury Secretary Blumenthal), was threatened with summary firing--Califano returns to the disingenuous theme, asserting that there was some Elmer Gantry in Jimmy Carter. Soon after, Califano and Blumenthal were out of work as the Carter ship of state took on a resemblance to Richard Nixon's. Somewhat self-serving, indeed, but a close, hard look at day-to-day Washington, regardless.

Pub Date: May 29, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1981