Faith inspired author's political service - Catholic Courier

Faith inspired author’s political service

INSIDE: A PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIFE, by Joseph A. Califano. Public Affairs (New York, 2004). 539 pp., $30.00.

Joseph A. Califano’s autobiography, “Inside: A Public and Private Life,” traces his rise from the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., to the corridors of government and legal power in Washington and New York.

Califano, now 73, held key positions in the Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations, and his book provides many intriguing insights into recent American political history. His reflections on growing up “Catholic with a capital C” and “American with a capital A” as the product of an Italian and Irish “mixed marriage” will strike a familiar chord with many readers.

There are entertaining comments on the cultural intermingling of the Irish, Italians and Jews, which has given New York much of its modern atmosphere. He attributes his success and his outlook on life to his Catholic family upbringing and to his education with the Jesuits in Brooklyn Prep and Holy Cross College prior to Harvard Law School.

After an early marriage and service as a junior officer in the U.S. Navy, Califano joined the Kennedy team in the Pentagon. The young lawyer was on his way to serve in high-level positions in the Defense Department and the Johnson White House.

During the Nixon years, Califano followed in the accepted Washington tradition of power brokers and joined a prestigious law firm, Williams, Connolly and Califano. Among his clients was The Washington Post at the time of the Watergate scandal.

After the Democrats returned to the White House, President Jimmy Carter appointed Califano to serve as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. In that job, Califano admits that he was an activist who wanted to move the government’s “Great Society” programs. This drive brought him into conflict with the Carter White House, and the president asked for his resignation.

The deposed secretary reflects, “I left HEW disturbed by the power of special interests, especially those with big political bucks. There are many of them — corporate, racial, labor and single-issue interests like the pro- and anti-abortion groups, the gun, education and senior citizen lobbies; and the alcohol and tobacco interests. Washington is changing, I thought as I left HEW, and not necessarily for the better.”

The author returned to practicing law, established his own firm and engaged in many “pro bono” projects. Later he survived a bout with cancer. In recent years he has been a leader in health care reform and substance abuse prevention.

Califano’s memoir is more than an “apologia pro vita sua” peppered with anecdotes of bonhomie among the inside-the-Beltway elite. He sets great store on moral courage and tenacity to stay the course for a cause.

His reminiscences certainly should appeal to government workers and observers interested in the tribulations of national policymakers. Despite frequent claims that federal bureaucrats enjoy a privileged lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense, many of them work under pressure-cooker circumstances, and Califano describes that well.

He is also frank about personal problems, including the divorce from his first wife of 23 years and the eventual annulment that permitted a second Catholic marriage.

The author is keenly aware of the difficulties confronting a Catholic in a pluralistic society. He writes, “As a Cabinet officer I sought to render to Caesar and God what each was due. Faith in God and the Catholic religion have provided spiritual adrenaline for my life in public policy and government. To some in the public arena, just the word ‘God’ sends shivers of secularism down the spine, but faith is a big part of who I am and what I’ve done. It has given me strength and passion for public service and enabled me to stand firm by my choices no matter how loud the criticism.”

Carroll is a retired civil servant.

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