LBJ Aide: Obama ‘a Chicagoan, Not a Washingtonian’

Joseph Califano Jr. recalls how the 36th president was immersed in the ways of the capital, unlike the 44th.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Former United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano Jr. attends a screening of 'Herblock - The Black and the White' at the Dolby 88 Theater on April 24, 2013 in New York City. 
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
April 9, 2014, 5:46 p.m.

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.

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