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Books: An Ultimate Insider

3 minute read
John F. Stacks

Joseph Califano Jr. came barreling out of Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a conservative Irish-American mother and a white-shirted Italian-American father who worked for IBM. He went to Catholic schools, to Harvard Law, to the Navy and then to a white-shoe Wall Street law firm.

Ambition and moral zeal were his propellants, and Califano never slowed down. His memoir, Inside: A Public and Private Life (Public Affairs; 539 pages), is as jam-packed and energetic as his life so far.

He was taken with John F. Kennedy’s candidacy in 1960, mostly because the Senator was Catholic and anticommunist, like Califano’s parents. He worked hard for Kennedy in New York, and when J.F.K. became President, Califano, tired of practicing tax law, volunteered to work in the Pentagon, where he eventually became one of Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids.”

Lucky enough to have little to do with McNamara’s war in Vietnam, Califano did get his hands dirty working with a group, run by Robert Kennedy, that was charged with eliminating Fidel Castro. It came up with some really bizarre ideas: “Attach incendiary devices to bats,” which would then “retire to attics … and start fires.” Wacky plans aside, the group, using CIA operatives and U.S. mobsters, tried to kill Castro in what was known as Operation Mongoose. Califano confesses to taking no pride in this mission. But he does conclude, without explanation, that Lyndon Johnson was right when he said, “Kennedy tried to kill Castro, but Castro got Kennedy first.”

That was the inauspicious start of a long and distinguished career that next saw him as point man on Johnson’s Great Society programs. He was the consummate Washington player and proud of it. “I aspired to be the next Clark Clifford,” he writes,”[who] set the standard for practicing law as an ultimate Washington insider.” He occasionally gilds the lily, telling us which other insiders he dined with, which trendy spot they frequented and even what they ate.

Califano was so inside that he often seemed to be playing for both sides at once. During Watergate, as counsel to the Washington Post, Califano defended the paper against subpoenas for its reporters’ notes in a lawsuit he himself had filed against Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign on behalf of the Democratic National Committee.

It was as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare that Califano had his biggest impact: he started the national crusade against smoking. That campaign has probably saved tens of thousands of lives over the years, but it sent the tobacco industry and its pet politicians into a rage. Carter fired Califano from the Cabinet, partly to mollify the tobacco interests but also because, inevitably, Califano was just too much an insider. –By John F. Stacks

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