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An Interview with Joseph Califano, Jr. February 11, 2014 Interviews, Print Edition No Comments on An Interview with Joseph Califano, Jr.


By Anthony Cruz and John Cheo

Joseph Califano, Jr. was the 12th U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter. As Secretary, Califano led anti-smoking initiatives (which later led to his exit from the administration), childhood immunization campaigns, and programs to reduce health care costs and restructure federal aid for education. Prior to being Secretary, Califano served as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s top domestic policy aide and as an attorney in the Department of Defense under Secretary Robert McNamara. 


You began your career as a civil servant in the Department of Defense in 1961. What was your role as a lawyer under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara? How did your time in the Pentagon shape your views on the Vietnam War?

I went to the Pentagon as a very young lawyer, 28 or 29 years old, to do the legal work for McNamara’s reorganizing of the Pentagon. He reorganized the whole place. I would write opinions that basically said that if you want to do this, it’s legal.

I left the Pentagon in 1965 before the buildup in Vietnam. I was not involved in the policy part of the war in Vietnam. I wasn’t an advocate for getting out of Vietnam, and I wasn’t an advocate for increasing our involvement. The greatest hawk in the government was Secretary McNamara. If you go back and look at his memos in those days, he was that guy who wanted to mine Haiphong harbor. The whole government believed in the Domino Theory and believed we would lose all of South Asia With the exception of George Ball, who was the Under Secretary of State, and a lawyer named Clark Clifford, who was notinthegovernmentbutabigDemocratic lawyer who wrote powerful memos saying “Don’t build it up; let it go,” everybody else was for it.

You have to remember that Johnson had run against Barry Goldwater in 1964. One of the big issues in the campaign was defense and anti-communism. The Democrats were constantly being attacked for being soft on communism. They were constantly looking over their right shoulder at that. [President John F.] Kennedy was very concerned before he died about Barry Goldwater beating him. We have a wonderful view of Kennedy today, but he was in trouble in terms of getting elected for a second term at that time on this issue. You had Eisenhower who first put troops in. Then, Kennedy, who had 16,000 advisors. Then you had Johnson, who started building it up. It was a consistent policy.

When [President Richard] Nixon ran for reelection, we got intercepted phone conversations about Nixon trying to go through Anna Chennault, the wife of the Chinese leader, to get to the South Vietnamese to say, “Don’t make a deal with the North Vietnamese with Johnson now. I’ll get a better deal for you when I am President.” Nixon came, and [we had] four more years, with all the demonstrations and everything else because, by and large, though it was a losing war and sadly, a futile war, the establishment of America — as distinguished from the people — was for it. We really didn’t have demonstrations except from the hippie left until Johnson said “Poor people are fighting the war. We are going to end the deferments for graduate school, because the black and the poor are fighting. We are going to end the deferments, and we are going to start taking people right out of college.”

At that point, in October of ‘67, we had our first major demonstration, in which the crowd — thousands of people out there on the Mall — were not black and poor. They were just middle-class, upper-class Americans saying, “Wait a minute. This war is not worth my son.”

As President Lyndon B. Johnson’s top domestic policy advisor from 1965 to 1969, what was your role in formulating and implementing Great Society legislation?

The way we would do it, by and large, was that we knew some major areas in which we wanted to move — we knew civil rights, poverty issues, economic issues, environmental issues. In the late summer, I would go out and around the country. I would go out to New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, New York, etc. and have a dinner meeting with a group of people, usually a couple of university presidents and experts in various fields.

For example, in the West, we had a couple of water experts, because LBJ used to say “You don’t know a goddamn thing about water. You grew up in Brooklyn. You just turn on the faucet. You have to understand water.” He had come from the hill country where, when he was elected to Congress in 1938, there was no running water and no electricity.

Then, we would get the best ideas, and out of that process came a lot of things. The importance of early childhood education came out of it, [as did] the importance of taking care of women who were pregnant because of the impact [the care] would have on the health of the child. Other things, like advanced books that were published, like Ralph Nader’s book on auto safety, Unsafe at Any Speed, [led to] the Auto Safety Actand Tire Safety [i.e. the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act of 1966] and all the cushions on the seatbelts.

But it was all within in a general area. The first time that I saw President Johnson, he said, “There are three things I want to do for sure. Transportation system of the country is a mess. I want to put all the 35 different agencies into a single department. I want to create a Department of Transportation. Two, the cities. I want to prove that we can rebuild cities. So, we want a program for the worst neighborhoods in the cities. Three, fair housing. Now, we will do a lot of other things but for whatever else we do, we are going to do those things.”

What was it like to be so close to the President? What was the most interesting thing you learned in this role?

It was exhausting! You have to understand that this is somebody who got up at 5:30 in the morning and would pick up the phone (we are talking 1965 Washington), and you get a call at a quarter to six in the morning, and he’d say, “What are you going to do about the New York Times story on education?” And he was probably the only person in Washington, D.C., with The New York Times at a quarter to six in the morning. He would say “How could you be a White House aide and not understand or read what’s in the paper?”

And he worked at night. You never knew when he was going to eat a meal. Lunch could be at noon or could be at four. Dinner could be at four or could be at midnight. He just worked. He took a nap every day for about an hour every afternoon some point. He worked basically two days, i.e. he worked 16 hours — two eight-hour days and took a nap and slept. So it was constant work.

What did I learn? So many things. I think he taught me more about poverty than I ever thought in the context. I think it was because he had grown up in such poverty out in the hill country. As I mentioned, there was no running water, there was no electricity. There was really abject poverty. He taught Mexican-Americans kids in Cotulla, Texas, when he was 21 or 22. He never got over that. He said, “I looked in their eyes, and they were hungry. We have to do something.”

On the human side, [I learned] how to get things done, how to make Washington work, how to work with Congress, how to work with the interest groups, how to work with corporations and labor unions, Catholic lobbyists, and black groups, all of which were quite varied. You had the old groups, e.g. the NAACP, but then, we were getting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, that whole world.

What is your take on this year’s government shutdown, the first government shutdown in 17 years?

It’s a mess. There is an element of plague on all your houses. You have an impossible situation in the House of Representatives with the Tea Party, which is more interested in fighting than getting something done. You have the Democrats in the Senate and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, who has demonstrated neither creativity nor flexibility. You have the President who, in my judgment, should be much more engaged than he has been. He should be getting these guys together. Let me put it this way: it strikes me as all politics. The Tea Party is playing politics. Harry Reid is playing politics. The President is playing politics.

I think I saw today that the Army, Navy, and Air Force Academies won’t be able to play football on Saturday. That is nonsense! They could easily play football on Saturday. But you pick something like that because everyone will know it and you feel a bit bad for them.

The House won’t keep sending the same writers on the bill. No real change. They just send the same thing back. They know it’s going to be voted down. It’s like ping-pong up there. [House Speaker John] Boehner and Reid aren’t talking to each other. Boehner doesn’t control his caucus. Reid has his own problems in the Senate. There are not as visible now but with the liberal part of the Senate. But he has several senators in conservative states and he is very worried about them.

Nobody wants to give. It doesn’t have to happen. We will survive. We have been through it many times. I think 17 times, the papers say. The last time was about three weeks. And the market goes up — that’s the incredible thing! Every time that the government has been shut down, the market has gone up.

After serving as President Johnson’s top domestic aide, you served as the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare for President Jimmy Carter. In that role, you were a staunch advocate against tobacco. How did your views on this issue make you stand out? Did they have any influence on your leaving the Carter administration?

I was fired in the Carter Administration over the tobacco issue. I got into it, because when I became Secretary, I had to interview a lot of doctors for jobs. Probably 100 doctors. I asked everyone, “What about health promotion and disease prevention?” We were operating on the theory that there is only one way to reduce healthcare costs and that is to stay out of the sick care system. Every doctor said that you can’t have a serious program in health promotion and disease prevention unless you go after smoking.

We did a survey and found out for the first time in 1977 that 90% of adults who were hooked on tobacco were hooked when they were teenagers, which really showed us where the tobacco companies were aiming. Secondly, about half of the people who smoked had tried to quit within the last year. In those days, they may have not made it out of bed without reaching for a cigarette when they woke up, and it was on their mind.

That led to a very public campaign, and it led to a lot of controversy. There were billboards in the South that said “Califano is dangerous to your health.” Kentucky and North Carolina’s legislatures voted to impeach me. I don’t think you can impeach a Cabinet officer. So it got to be very controversial. It was very difficult. In the real world, President Carter was in a tight re-election battle. He could not have not carried Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and maybe not even Georgia if I had stayed in the Cabinet. So he had no choice.

But he eventually apologized?

He eventually apologized. Ten years later, at a dinner in New York at the Carnegie Foundation, [President Carter] pulled me aside and said “On tobacco, Joe, you were right, and I was wrong.” I thought that was very gracious, big. That’s a lesson I learned.

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