Joseph Califano Jr. worked for presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was the former health, education and welfare secretary under President Jimmy Carter. He recently spoke at Michigan State University. Earlier in his career, while working at the Pentagon, he was privy to a top-secret plan that would have sent bats armed with explosives into Cuba. Califano is 77.
How do you go from growing up in Brooklyn to working in the White House?
A lot of luck, a lot of hard work. I went to work in the Pentagon as a young lawyer. When I got out of law school I went in the Navy for three years, because in those days everyone was getting drafted. I was getting married and I needed the money. I got interested in Kennedy’s campaign and I was just ringing doorbells. Nobody in the Kennedy campaign knew I existed. And as a young lawyer I went to work for Cyrus Vance (later the secretary of state under Carter) and was general counsel to the Department of Defense and as his special assistant. One thing led to another then and I became general counsel to the Army, then became (Former Secretary of Defense Robert) McNamara’s top assistant. Then I got to know (former President Lyndon) Johnson’s staff: (Jack) Valenti and (Bill) Moyers. They eventually asked that I come over and be domestic adviser. I worked on legislative programs and helped coordinate policy. And then we hit it off. Then I went on to practice law and I represented The Washington Post during Watergate, during Woodward and Bernstein, which was war with Nixon administration, which was trying to destroy the paper. When health, education and welfare came open I was recommended for that by Vice President Walter Mondale and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil.
At HEW you were a champion of anti-smoking. What do you think of states like Michigan that don’t have a smoking ban in restaurants and bars?
It’s incredible that Michigan doesn’t have that yet. But the tobacco industry always fights it. They fight it because what’s happened is when you have a higher tax on cigarettes and you have smoke-free space, it becomes so inconvenient and socially unacceptable to smoke, lots of people quit. Lots of people quit rather than have to run out of the restaurant. That’s why they fight it. But it’ll come. And it has no impact on business. In New York City when we went totally smoke free, if you walk along Second and Third avenues the bars are packed on Thursday night or Friday night.
Iread in a paper you wrote that you’re against the decriminalization or legalization of drugs. What do you think about legal medical marijuana?
I think the issue of whether marijuana has medical properties is something we have a system to determine. We have oxycontin, which is similar to heroin, it’s a legal drug; we have had morphine for years; these are addictive drugs. For the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, there’s a pill called Marinol. It’s effective. The problem is it’s a pill and some people can’t hold it down long enough. It should be available as a suppository and a spray, and hopefully the manufacturer will do that. I know they’re under pressure to do it. Whether marijuana helps with glaucoma, whether it helps with multiple sclerosis, I think we ought to find out. And we’re trying to. The problem is, I really don’t understand why, like the use of other drugs like morphine, heroin, and even methamphetamine, we never did the research in respect to marijuana that we did with those drugs. But there’s a system to do it. It’s not something that should be done by referendum. It’s a science issue.
You’re a director on the board of Willis Group. Did you have anything to do with the renaming of the Sears Tower?
(Laughs) All credit of that goes to Joe Plumari, who’s the chairman of the board. And it’s a great thing. And we’re gong to celebrate it this summer.