From Punch Ball to Hardball

Book cover
Insideby By Joseph A. Califano Jr.Public Affairs. 515p $30

In this richly documented and thoroughly engaging memoir, Joseph A. Califano Jr. recalls his years in Washington as a member of several administrations and as a partner in a powerful law firm. From this vantage point Califano observed and participated in the national crises and unsettling cultural changes that marked the 1960’s and 1970’s. But along with a compelling account of the high political drama of those years, Califano also reflects on his own personal odyssey as a committed Catholic, whose church during those same years had launched a voyage into uncharted waters in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Like many Americans of his generation, Califano was attracted by the campaign and election in 1961 of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president. After campaigning for Kennedy among Manhattan Democrats, he sought and secured a position in the new Kennedy administration as a special assistant to Cyrus Vance, counsel to the Department of Defense and its formidable secretary, Robert McNamara. It would be the first of a series of challenging assignments in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.


As counsel to the secretary of the Army after Vance was named to that post, and later as special assistant to McNamara and counsel to the Department of Defense, Califano was actively involved in a series of domestic and international crises. But it was his service in the White House as special assistant for domestic affairs to Lyndon Baines Johnson from 1965 to 1968 that was Califano’s defining experience in government. Even while the conflict in Vietnam spiraled downward, Califano successfully promoted L.B.J.’s domestic reforms through the legislative process. He notes with satisfaction that the reforms of the Great Society are accepted now, decades later, as essential guarantees of access to education, health care and employment opportunities for all American citizens.

Califano’s portrait of Johnson is cast in heroic terms; he singles out the president’s courage as his most striking personal quality, and he looks back with admiration on L.B.J.’s ability to manipulate individuals and, if necessary, dissemble facts to achieve great ends. As his own misgivings about Vietnam grew, Califano plunged into the ambitious program for domestic reform that was L.B.J.’s consuming vision. He resented the personal attacks on the president by antiwar protestors, but Califano is oddly silent about the decision-making process that led Johnson to announce at the end of March 1968 that he would not stand for re-election to a second term.

After leaving the Johnson administration, Califano began a long and rewarding (on several levels) career as a Washington lawyer, drawing on relationships established during his service in government to lobby successfully on behalf of corporate clients, suffering only occasional misgivings about possible conflicts of interest. When in 1971, he joined his fellow Holy Cross alumnus, Edward Bennett Williams, the legendary defense attorney, and Williams’s partner, Paul Connolly, to form the new firm of Williams, Connolly and Califano, his life as a Washington insider entered its most satisfying season, in personal as well as professional terms: “Ed and Paul were the brothers I never had.”

The 1972 presidential election campaign will always be remembered for the Watergate scandal that led Richard M. Nixon to resign the presidency just two years after he had been elected in a landslide victory. Califano’s role in the drama of Watergate illustrates in striking fashion the title he has chosen for his memoirs. As counsel first for the Democratic National Committee, which sued the Nixon campaign, and later for The Washington Post, which sought to protect the sources of its reporters, Califano was deeply involved in the legal strategy that eventually led to the establishment of the Senate Watergate Committee and the appointment of a special prosecutor. At the same time, as a result of personal relationships developed during his years at the Defense Department, Califano offered private advice to Alexander Butterfield, the White House aide who would reveal the existence of Nixon’s elaborate taping system, and to Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff. (“I’d tell the President to burn the tapes.”)

In 1976, after the election of Jimmy Carter, Califano returned to government to serve as the last secretary of health, education and welfare. The Carter White House proved to be a far less congenial environment for the Brooklyn-born and bred Califano, who was seen as an outsider by Carter loyalists. His portfolio as H.E.W. secretary, however, gave Califano the opportunity to dedicate his considerable energies to the promotion of the kind of domestic reforms that had been L.B.J.’s agenda for the Great Society. But in July 1979 Jimmy Carter, after returning from his mountain retreat to deplore the “malaise” afflicting American society, asked for the resignations of all of his cabinet members. He accepted Califano’s.

The only child of an Italian-American father and an Irish-American mother, educated by the Sisters of Mercy in elementary school and by the Jesuits in high school and college, Califano writes about his struggle to understand and maintain his commitment to his family and his faith, an account that constitutes an important witness to the strength and challenges of contemporary Catholicism. As H.E.W. secretary, Califano found himself negotiating with representatives of the U.S. Catholic bishops on policy issues connected with family planning. Today Califano sees his work as founding chairman and president of the National Center for Substance Abuse at Columbia University in religious terms, using the gifts God has given him not for private gain but for the public good.

Memoirs can be an occasion for settling scores. A veteran of close combat on many political battlefields, Califano recounts his conflicts with various public figures in a candid and lively style. But he is never spiteful or small-minded. Looking back over an extraordinary career, he acknowledges some regrets and accepts responsibility for personal failures, but in this season of his life, Joe Califano seems at peace with himself and grateful for the life he has led. His fellow citizens and his fellow Catholics should be grateful too.

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