In Conversation with Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

On February 11, 2014, Jonathan sat down with Joseph A. Califano, Jr. to discuss his long career in public service.

Click on this link to view video of the event.


Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

February 11, 2014


Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening.  Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, hear world leaders like former Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno Ocampo, or talk presidential politics during our conference entitled Ike Reconsidered: Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century.

Tonight is different.  I have long wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally.  Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMa President Agnes Gund, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, Harvard Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and most recently, Judy Collins.

My guest tonight is my good friend, Joseph Califano, who is an active member of our Roosevelt House Board and was the driving force behind our conference on Lyndon Johnson’s domestic record two years ago.  When he was appointed H.E.W. Secretary by Jimmy Carter, he asked two friends, Kingman Brewster, President of Yale and McGeorge Bundy, President of the Ford Foundation to loan him people to assist in recruiting senior H.E.W. staff.  I came from Yale where I had been President Brewster’s Chief of Staff and Peter Bell came from Ford.  I worked on finding candidates for jobs like Director of the Center for Disease Control and the Assistant Secretary for Health.  I learned a lot from Joe in my three month tour and was privileged to watch Joe blend principled policies with practical politics for the benefit of the President and the nation.

We reconnected when I was President of the New School whose remarkable chair, Dorothy Hirshon was the mother of Joe’s wife Hillary.  Hillary and Joe have been our dear friends both here and in Connecticut.

In between my work for Joe at H.E.W. and our reconnection in New York through Hillary, I was teaching 20th Century American History at the University of Chicago.  The very best book on how government works was Joe’s The Triumph as Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson a sympathetic but honest look at The Great Society and the impact of war. My students loved it.

Somehow in his busy life Joe has found time to author a dozen books including a memoir Inside: A Public and Private Life,  A Presidential Nation, America’s Health Care Revolution: Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Pays? Some of my questions tonight will be drawn from these books.

As background for our conversation here is a video describing a remarkable life.  After the video, Joe and I will have a conversation for 40 minutes or so and then open up to your questions and wrap up around 7:15.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt would be pleased that we are having this conversation in their house this evening with a person who understands –and has tried to implement – FDR’s vision for a national health program.  Hear the President’s words first in a letter to the nation on July 1938 and then a message to Congress on The National Health Program in January 1939.

“Nothing is more important to a nation than the health of its people…The economic loss due to sickness is a very serious matter not only for many families with and without incomes but for the nation as a whole…We cannot do all at once everything that we should do. But we can advance more surely if we have before us a comprehensive, long-range program, providing for the most efficient cooperation of Federal, state, and local governments, voluntary agencies, professional groups, media of public information, and individual citizens.”