IT IS HARD to imagine a better introduction to the problems of modern government than this lively, ardent, commtted memoir. Joseph Califano is a recent example of a now familiar 20th-century type: the Washington lawyer whose heart lies in public service (or perhaps the public servant who, if his party is out of power, takes refuge in Washington law practice). In the 1960s he served in Robert McNamara's Department of Defense and in Lyndon Johnson's White House. As special assistant to President Johnson, he played a large role in the forumlation of the Great Society programs. When the Democrats returned to office a decade later, Joe Califano hoped that he might be given the chance to see whether the programs he helped create could be made to work.

The job he wanted -- and got -- was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. This was not the softest spot in government. The department's budget -- $200 billion in 1980, before it was split into the two departments of Education and Health and Human Services -- was larger than that of any country in the world, save for the United States and the Soviet Union. Its programs directly served 120 million people, providing transfer payments, assistance for the handicapped, meals for senior citizens, hot lunches for school children, funds for basic bio-medical research, food and drug control, and so on; the list was diverse and almost endless, covering nearly everything implied by health, education and welfare.

As the place where most social programs ended up, among government departments to help the vulnerable and powerless in our society. As the place to which so many anxious constituencies looked for support and succor, it was a battleground on which, as Califano wryly puts it, "the disadvantaged fought the disadvantaged" in the contest for limited funds. Its charter "brought its Secretary up against most of the exposed nerves of American society," and its operations roused intense controversy. It was, Califano came (a little parochially) to believe, "the most treacherous turf in Washington." It is little wonder that there were 13 secretaries in the 27 years of the department's history.

His first problem, which he tried to overcome through speedy reorganization, was to gain administrative control over the sprawling department with its morass of responsibilities and its jungle of regulations. Califano then goes on to recall the main themes of his proconsulship -- abortion, health policy, civil rights, education, welfare reform, social security. These chapters with their incisive statement of issues, their pervasive understanding that policy is nothing without administrative and political management, their candid acknowledgement of error and their frank identification of allies and adversaries, constitute a fascinating series of case studies in the dilemmas of government administration.

Abortion presented Califano, a conscientious Roman Catholic, with particular difficulties. "Here I faced my own convictions that abortion was morally wrong except to save the life of the mother." He therefore shared President's Carter's determination to stop federal funding of abortions. Yet the law he was sworn to uphold permitted Medicaid to fund abortions for poor women. He recounts his consultations with theologians of his faith and his struggle to strike a balance between personal scruple and public responsibility. This willingness to discuss his own moral and intellectual perplexities is a valuable feature of the book. I particularly liked the self-knowledge displayed in his recruitment of aides. "My personality was strong, so the Under Secretary had to be someone who could stand up to that. . . I also wanted a press officer with the persistence and resilience to deal with someone as strong-willed as I was." (He got them in Hale Champion and Eileen Shannahan.)

The battles of HEW took place against the larger backdrop of the Carter administration. Califano, who had met Carter only briefly during the 1976 campaign, was dismayed from the start by his "persistent attacks on Washington insiders." After the election, he thought that Carter "brandished informalities and religion" and soon began "to suspect that much of what was going on was for public consumption." As time passed, he felt that "the President and his staff were unable or unwilling to switch gears from campaigning to governing." He could never quite figure out whether Carter was naive or disingenuous; toward the end, for whatever reason, he began to doubt the president's word. "My God, there is some Elmer Gantry in this born again President," he finds himself thinking by the spring of 1978.

He also doubted Carter's liberalism. The one issue in Califano's experience that "truly excited" Carter was government reorganization. Carter, Califano notes, resented the liberal establishment. Attorney Joseph Rauh, the president once told him, "is the only person on my enemies' list"; one recalls John Kennedy's remark to Ben Bradlee that "the only one [of the organization liberals] I care about is Joe Rauh. He's great." While hating Rauh, Carter could respond with alacrity when Robert Strauss told him that the way to restore his popularity was to "make an attack on the federal bureaucracy." As Califano's account makes clear, Carter rejected the tradition of the modern Democratic party and had nothing to put in its place.

Califano was especially disappointed to what he was as Carter's lack of real concern about racial justice. "I sense his desire was to appease constituencies as much as to satisfy a fundamental commitment to human rights. . . He evidenced little desire to lead the nation to an understanding of the demands and subtleties of civil rights in the late 1970s and 1980s." Califano never heard Carter "speak privately with the burning conviction, much less the passion, of Lyndon Johnson about civil rights or race."

The most vivid and entertaining passages in Governing America are the flashbacks to Johnson. In contrast, Carter is a wan and hesitant figure, recoiling from being President Carter and seeming "always to long to retreat to the more comfortable ground of candidate Carter." The account of Carter's cabinet seance at Camp David in April 1978 and of the subsequent national malaise speech hardly bothers to veil Califano's growing contempt. Califano's testimony is necessarily subject to discount, for Carter in the end fired him. But one value of Governing America for the historians is that Califano, by writing while the rest of the cast is still alive, offers the Carter people ample opportunity for rebuttal. The result can only be to enrich the historical record.

The frailties of Carter are not Califano's major point. His abiding interest is in the process of governing America. His book should increase respect for the care and conscience with which the maligned bureaucracy and the somewhat maligned Congress deal with complex technical issues. It should also draw attention to what Califano regards as the trickiest problem of all -- the institutionalization of special interests in the executive and legislative bureaucracies and the consequent relinquishment of both executive and legislative responsibility to the courts. I hope he will find an occasion to elaborate his thought on this problem and on possible remedies.

The historian wishes that the author had added a word about the sources from which he extracts verbatium renditions of conversations and meetings. Did he keep a diary? Carry a tape recorder? Dictate aides-memoires? The text does not make clear which words were recorded at the time, which recollected in tranquility . The book has the ring of truth, but posterity is entitled to a note about documentation. Nonetheless Governing America will be a significant document in all future discussions of the travail of the welfare state.