Those who know Joseph Califano’s life story but have not seen his book might have two reasons for wanting to read it: to see what he has to say about Jimmy Carter, the man who hired and then fired him as secretary of health, education, and welfare, and to find out what lessons this old hand can teach about the way the government works. There are answers to both questions in this book, but Governing America is more significant for something else. It is an explanation, mainly unintentional, of why mainstream liberalism has fallen to its current low estate, and thereby, in a way quite different from what the author seemingly has in mind, it is a reminder of the true tragedy of the Carter years.

As for his portrayal of the former president, Califano strikes me as correct, though totally onesided. Everything that was feckless about Jimmy Carter is accurately described here: the misunderstanding of human motivations, the inability to convey any large idea of his plans, the belief that he could win support in Congress or among reporters or within his staff by sending little memos saying “I need your help.” One of Califano’s accusations is, in my judgment, phony—that Jimmy Carter was insincere or timid in his commitment to civil rights—but the rest ring true to my own experience in the administration. The problem is that there is little room in this account for the qualities that remained admirable in Carter: his fundamental integrity and intelligence, his understanding that programs launched with grand intentions in Washington often looked quite different to the people they actually affected, the human decency that made it inconceivable for Carter to humiliate his employees as Lyndon Johnson was said to do, but which also denied Carter the benefits of Johnson-style manipulation.

Nor is there much modulation in the contrast Califano draws between Carter’s weakness and two other men’s strengths. One of them is Lyndon Johnson, who makes frequent cameo appearances to illustrate how a president’s work should really be done. These stories are delightful: in one, Johnson uses a bewildered Pope Paul VI as a prop to make a political point, and in another he so baffles a delegation of doctors from the AMA that the same men who came to his office ready to denouce Medicare go out telling reporters they’ll support the plan. Califano is as faithful to the good in his first president as to the bad in his second.

While a proper appreciation of Lyndon Johnson’s human vitality and legislative genius is fine, there is virtually no hint in this book of the other side of the balance—the judgment that Carter possessed and Johnson lacked. It is worth remembering that, by the end of Johnson’s term, there were half a million American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, and the nation was more bitterly divided than at any time since at least the Great Depression and possibly the Civil War. By contrast, we have Carter, who when the American hostages were taken in Iran did not jump to the conclusion that this necessitated a military response. It has become fashionable among columnists to say that Carter’s performance proved his and the nation’s craven weakness. But, from even the brief historical perspective we now enjoy, was the damage done to America’s interest by the hostage incident so grave as to warrant a full-scale military response? Carter’s approach to Iran cost eight servicemen their lives; Johnson’s response to Vietnam cost 49,000.

The other virtuous figure is the author, whose prescience and commitment ring through the book. As one who has made his own contributions to the “If Only They’d Listened to Me” school of political memoir, I hesitate to sound overrighteous on this point. Still, there is such a thing as laying it on too thick. In this book Califano is usually saying things like “our only hope is to develop some kind of compromise that will help poor people,” and is often being told things like “Well, hell, Joe, I can’t believe he would ever get rid of you. You’re the best damn Cabinet officer he’s got” (from Tip O’Neill), or “Joe Califano is not only one of our great scholars in America; but he happens to be one of the greatest administrators in the nation” (from Carl Perkins). It is easy to imagine that these words were actually spoken; it is harder to conceive of including them in your own book. The one significant exception to this tone—and just about the only incident in which Carter is made to look reasonably shrewd—comes during discussions of different proposals for welfare plans, when Carter says with a smile, “Joe … when you want to call it the Califano plan, then I’ll know we have a good one.”

Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, has directly accused Califano of displaying selective memory in his account. “Members of Congress called us to say that Joe was actively lobbying against the Department of Education,” Powell said. In the book, Califano presents himself as having loyally defended a policy with which (for quite good reason) he disagreed. Powell said, “That’s the kind of thing where if you do it and you get caught, you’ve got to expect to go back to pauper’s fees as Al Haig’s lawyer.” Martin Kaplan of The Washington Star, who worked in Califano’s department and later in the White House, said, “From both the HEW side and the White House, I know of any number of incidents where, by omission or by selective refraction, Joe’s account is partial at best. But I’m not going to write about it.”

When it comes to teaching the lessons of his long experience in government, Califano seems to share Lyndon Johnson’s trait of being better at getting things done than at explaining how he did so. In The Vantage Point, Johnson was full of lofty sentiments about the burdens of power; when speaking for the record, Califano tends toward a similar style. But a few paragraphs later he will mention in a matter of fact way, as if the idea would have occurred to anyone, that he had drafts of HEW proposals typed at the Pentagon to avoid leaks, or that he thought of converting all the figures in the administration’s $9,400-per-year welfare plan from 1978 dollars to 1976 dollars so they’d look ten percent smaller when publicly announced; or that he combed through the budget looking for unlikely programs that he could classify as “welfare,” so that the “welfare budget” would look as large as possible—thereby giving him the maximum room for maneuver when Carter told him that a new welfare plan must cost no more than the current one.

The real lessons about government are to be found not in Califano’s recollections or prescriptions but in his tone. Governing America is one of those documents in which the very syntax reveals more basic assumptions about the way the world should work.

The book resembles most closely the tone of high school debate, in which able and industrious students work up one subject after another and argue their case with all the power they can muster. Their information is nearly all secondhand, drawn from statistical almanacs, newspaper clippings, and government reports. Their success depends on how vigorously they can present “proof” that is not authentic to them in any human sense.

The debater’s voice is heard on nearly every page of this book. Califano organizes the discussion into a series of chapters about different issues—welfare in one, national health insurance in another—and describes the “crisis” in each area in terms appropriate to standard liberal speeches, and also to debate. He lists a number of reports about declining performance in the schools and says, “My reaction to this statistical data was shock and outrage—how could the most affluent society on earth tolerate such a school system?” Or “We are setting off a time bomb of young Americans who are unable to function in a democratic society.” He uses four metaphors in 24 words to punch up his point about Social Security: “A final storm was blowing up, and would hit with magnum force as we entered the eighties—runaway inflation, arm-in-arm with recession.”

In keeping with an understanding of “problems” based mainly on statistics, the passion for action that Califano radiates is directed mainly at Washington, where bills may be passed and budgets rearranged. During the struggle over welfare reform, the most dramatic moments occur as the computers are working through the night, trying to figure out new charts of benefit distribution. When charged with the responsibility to enforce regulations known as Title IX, which mainly concern athletic programs for women at schools and colleges, Califano says he “discovered that no one had ever checked to see which institutions had filed the forms and which had not; thousands of executed forms had been lost; many were in corrugated boxes, split open and scattered on floors…. It was inexcusable.”

Such efforts to wrestle with the machinery in Washington do matter. Joseph Califano is a man any (Democratic) president would turn to for help in getting his legislation passed, or to figure out a way to keep the bureaucrats in line. During the New Deal and in the Johnson administration, some of the programs worked up by men like Califano made a fundamental difference for the good in many people’s daily lives. But this approach to doing business, in which “issues” are worked up like debate questions and solved by collecting forms, is what was most wrong with the standard Democratic approach—and, to judge from this book, is wrong still.

Califano provides an excellent illustration of the difference between abstract and firsthand knowledge. He says that when he was working for Lyndon Johnson, his three-year-old son found an aspirin bottle and swallowed the pills. He was at the hospital by the time Johnson called him about another matter.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.