Califano memoir: the staging of how many exit scenes?; Governing America: An Insider's Report from the White House and the Cabinet, by Joseph A. Califano Jr. New York: Simon & Schuster. $16.95.

In July of 1979, when Jimmy Carter was disastrously down in the opinion polls and was considering a purge of his Cabinet, Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams told the author of this book, "You ought to hope he fires you. The guy is through and it will give you a way out."

Carter obliged and effectively dismissed Califano, his Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, along with four other members of his Cabinet. As a device to restore Carter's popularity the maneuver failed. To it, however, we owe this book, the first by a member of the Carter Cabinet.

Califano does not tell us much we did not already know about Carter's presidency, but he does tell how it felt to be high up and inside and on the receiving end of a barrage of biting and peremptory notes from the President, ordering him to do this or that. he tells what it was like to be a Cabinet member who launched a major campaign on the hazards of smoking, only to have the rug abruptly pulled out from under him by a President who was all too aware of the impact the powerful North Carolina tobacco growers could have on his prospects for reelection. And he tells how it felt to be accused by Carter of disloyally leaking secrets to the press when, as Califano and other members of the Cabinet saw it, the prime culprits were Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell.

Califano compares Carter unfavorably with Lyndon Johnson, whom he served during the 1960s as White House assistant for domestic affairs. Johnson had both vision and knowhow, he says, combining a large view of what he wanted to accomplish with down-home skill in attaining his ends. Carter, on the other hand, was at once cynical and naive. He kept his goals narrow, and he was inept even at lobbying congressmen.

Califano shows Hamilton Jordan intervening again and again with the words, "I don't know anything about the merits, but I know the politics for the President." And he portrays Edward Kennedy as a hardball player with a sense of humor, who adroitly "focused on the political theater of national health insurance" in an attempt to win publicity for his bid for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

But apart from glimpses such as these, the reader who seeks stunning revelations will be disappointed. During his two and a half years at HEW, Califano ran a department with a budget -- a proposed $200 billion for 1980 -- larger than that of any nation in the world except the US and USSR. He spent much of his time drafting legislation on, say, medicare or social security, negotiating with congressmen to get it passed, then drawing up guidelines by which his department ought to carry it out.

As a Roman Catholic, Califano was troubled by the fact that federal funding for abortion politicizes it and creates a political battleground for issues he considers to be primarily ethical. But as a liberal of the LBJ stamp, he was enthusiastic about using federal funds to protect the civil rights of blacks.

The book is likely to be remembered for its portrait of Jimmy Carter. He started out innocent at running national government and he ended, like Richard Nixon and LBJ before him, blaming his failures on the press and accusing subordinates of disloyalty, when it was he who was disloyal to them. Giving us this portrait, Califano shows one more time why Jimmy Carter's preside ncy failed.

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