By all accounts, President Johnson was a down-home deal-maker with a predilection for schmoozing. “He wasn’t a Texan; he was a Washingtonian,” said Joseph Califano Jr., who served as LBJ’s top domestic-policy aide.
“He knew the difference between the UAW and the AFL-CIO. He knew the difference between the bankers and the manufacturers,” Califano said. “He knew the religious leaders, whether it was Billy Graham or Cardinal Spellman. He knew lots of university presidents. He had been in all their worlds, because he had been in Congress so long.”
This week, President Obama and three of his predecessors gather in Austin, Texas, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which LBJ signed into law on July 2, 1964. The three-day conference, organized by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, provided an opportunity for Califano and others from the Johnson White House to reassess his legacy and compare his presidency with the current administration.
“We are a presidential nation,” Califano said when asked to compare President Obama with LBJ. “Presidential leadership is critical, and the only way Congress will work productively is when there’s a strong presidential leader.
“Obama doesn’t seem to relish Washington politics the way Lyndon Johnson relished Washington politics. Johnson was in Washington for 35 years. Obama had no real legislative experience before he became president: He was only in the Senate for two years, and he spent most of that time running for the Democratic nomination. I would characterize Obama as a Chicagoan, not a Washingtonian.”
At the same time, Califano added, Obama is a sublime orator, which LBJ was not.
Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Califano attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and later Harvard Law School. After serving in the Navy as an ensign in the Office of the Judge Advocate General, Califano won numerous accolades as general counsel of the Army. In July 1965, he became Johnson’s special assistant, a position he held for the remainder of LBJ’s presidency.
Although Califano did not become one of Johnson’s top aides until after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, he played a role in passing the subsequent Immigration and Nationality Act, or Hart-Celler Act, which abrogated quotas on immigrants from outside Western Europe.
“Johnson tore that book up,” Califano said. “If you want to know what Johnson did for this country, this is it: Everybody can have a fair shot; everybody can make it. Those barriers have been torn down. The “˜Whites Only’ signs have been torn down.”
Califano, who went on to serve as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Carter, sees parallels between the Hart-Celler Act and the comprehensive immigration reform that Obama called for in his most recent State of the Union address.
“We’re overdue for immigration reform,” Califano said. “You can’t keep separating parents and children, husbands and wives.”¦ We’ve done savage harm to the African-American family, and we’re doing savage harm to [Latino] families.”
Apart from his work on immigration, Califano dismantled a public-health regulation that categorized homosexuality as a mental disease and thereby prevented homosexuals from immigrating to the U.S. “I eliminated it,” he said. “It made no sense. It made no medical sense, and it made no human sense.”
Nonetheless, Califano is reluctant to characterize gay rights as the next frontier in the civil-rights movement.
“I don’t deny the fact that there has been a lot of suffering on the part of [the LGBT community], but I don’t see the same kind of tenacious opposition,” he said. “As secretary, when I moved to integrate Southern colleges or force Southern states to provide comparable resources to historically black colleges, all hell broke loose. People are much more dug in on race.”
After leaving the White House, Califano practiced law at Dewey Ballantine for close to a decade. In 1992, he founded Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, where he continues to serve as chairman emeritus.
Califano, 82, is the author of a dozen books. A revised edition of his most recent book, How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid: The Straight Dope for Parents, is due out in September.