THE Kentucky House of Representatives has called for his resignation.

The Danville (Va.) Bee allowed as how, "When the American people get fed up with the increasing creep of federal regimentation into their lives and decide to retaliate, we suspect a prime target of their wrath will be Joseph (Crazy Joe) Califano."

In the 22d Congressional District of Illinois, they refer to him simply as "that creep."

Whatever other problems Joseph Anthony Califano Jr., may have, name recognition does not seem to be one of them. If anyone who reads a newspaper or is within earshot of a television or radio doesn't know who Califano is, then attention isn't being paid.

The irony is that the vehicle for his new-found celebrity is the job in which the likes of Arthur Flemming, John Gardner, Anthony Celebrezze, Robert Finch and L. David Matthews have gone before. They are distinguished Americans one and all, but none achieved the prominence, not to say the notoriety, that Califano has developed. He is far and away the most highly publicized, most controversial secretary of health, education and welfare in the department's 25-year history. And he doesn't mind that one bit.

He heads the largest civilian bureaucracy in the United States, with 150,000 employes and a budget in fiscal 1979 of more than $181 billion. Not a single state, city or local community fails to feel the impact of the monstrous bureaucracy that Califano has grabbed hold of and that he says he intends to make work.

He has managed to incur the wrath of abortion proponents for personally opposing abortions, the outrage of physicians for repeatedly calling the medical care industry "obese," and the apoplexy of tobacco growers, cigarette makers and some smokers by embarking upon a largely rhetorical campaign against smoking. In some quarters, Califano has become the personification of the meddlesome federal bureaucracy, insinuating itself increasingly into the daily lives of Americans who want nothing so much as to be left alone.

That he and the people around him don't see what they're doing in those terms goes without saying. But the picture of Califano as part of the more-or-less permanent Washington establishment has more than a kernel of truth to it. After 17 years here, he is no stranger to Washington. If anything, that may be a weakness in his present circumstances - his New York origins and Washington experience making him suspect by all those Georgia accents at the White House. And it may not be going down so well out there in The Country, not playing so well in Peoria, as they used to say in the Nixon administration.

Califano had his political baptism under fire, first counseling Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara's appearances on Capitol Hill during the "muzzling of the generals" episode of the early '60s and then serving in the White House as Lyndon Johnson's domestic field marshal for the better part of four years.

It doesn't take the wisdom of Solomon to know that those were different times - easier in many ways than these. Califano says he knows all that, knows that times have changed and in what ways. He can give you a lecture about the Hill and changes in the rules, committees, leadership and staff - all to the point of saying that it's no longer possible for a president to stretch out his hand and make the waters part.

And yet the question arises as to whether or not he really understands what it means to say that things are different now, understating perhaps not how much there is to do, but rather how little is possible right now. What it comes down to is that it's possible that Califano's program, his style, his whole approach may be out of sync with the world he now finds himself operating in.

There are people in Washington who believe that Califano has emerged, unscathed and unchanged, from a time warp - ready to pick up where things left off on January 20, 1969, when Lyndon Johnson left the White House and took his battered but unbowed troops with him.

Harry McPherson, a Washington lawyer who worked in the White House with Califano, finds him much the same now as then. "I don't believe his fundamental views have changed since he came into government," McPherson said. "A lot of liberals who held those views in the early '60s have now been chastened by experience or made more moderate by age or persuaded to a more conservative point of view. Joe's liberalism remains pretty much intact, as far as I can tell."

"Joe," says someone who knew him then and knows him now, "is a person who believes you can get anything done. He has not become cynical. He has not given up. He is still gung-ho. He just realizes there are more constraints and there aren't as many easy answers."

When people say that Califano has not changed, it is a statement made as much in admiration as anything else - as though he had discovered some kind of spiritual or political fountain of youth that sustains his belief in the possibility of getting things done in this age of lowered expectations.

Califano does believe, of that there is no doubt. He believes in democracy, equality and social justice. "He is one of the few Italian puritans I have known," McPherson said. "Joe Califano remains, and I am sure will always remain, dismayed that the country spends more on cosmetics than it does on helping retarded children. There's just a deep feeling of social responsibility and it runs across the board."

"Joe," according to his good friend Stan Ross - who also happens to be Califano's choice to succeed Hale Champion as HEW undersecretary - "is a very religious guy. It's very sincere . . . a very strong part of his character and makeup." Califano attends family mass at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Georgetown every Sunday with his wife, Trudy, and his three children, Mark, 16, Joe III, 14, and Claudia, 8. He has been heard on occasion to worry aloud about whether his children were receiving "religious values" in their education. (All three of his children attend private Catholic schools.)

Back in the '50s, when he had more time for outside activities and was still living in New York, Califano and his wife used to spend some time down on the Bowery at the Catholic Worker, a left-wing Catholic movement run by Dorothy Day, a pacifist and socialist whom Califano refers to as "a living saint."

"I do believe," Califano says, "that God gives people talents and that you ought to use those talents for good. You have some obligation to do that. And I do have a sense of having been very fortunate in this country - fortunate as lawyer and in material terms, what have you."

"Fortunate" may be something of an understatement. Some would see Califano as having been spectacularly successful, in terms of career and income. Like a lot of other young lawyers who come to Washington eyes ablaze with notions of doing good, Califano stayed on after his government service to do well, very well, practicing law and representing clients who take a close interest in what the government does.His last year in private practice, while at the firm of Williams, Connolly and Califano, he reported income in excess of $500,000 (versus $66,000 a year as HEW secretary). His clients included Coca-Cola, The Washington Post, Pfizer Inc. and at one time the Democratic National Committee.

Where others his age (47) may pause, stumble or think about slowing down, Califano pushes ahead. More than one person, groping to describe him, settled on "driven" as the word that best summed him up.

"Joe," Ross said, "has a particular style. His style is to be an out-front hard charger. He didn't need Johnson really to know that you don't know what you can get done until you try. He's a sprinter. He's not a long-distance runner. His idea of getting a goal is to sprint to it.Joe's like the guys, maybe, who first broke the four-minute mile. They did it by running four 440s at top speed. They didn't think in terms of, 'Well, you know, if you're going to run a mile, you pace.' Joe's way of doing it would be you run very hard. And then if you're not there, you just keep running hard. And if it turns out that you have to run a mile at the same pace that you ran four 440s, that's precisely what you have to do and you can do it."

As Califano recalls it, he was home sick from work one day from the law firm of Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood where he was heading down the road to being a Wall Street lawyer. He had gone to Holy Cross and then Harvard Law (Class of '55, Law Review). He married Gertrude (Trudy) Zawacki right after finishing law school, went into the Navy and spent three years in Washington as a Navy lawyer - the last 18 months arguing cases before the Court of Military Appeals. Then he went to Dewey, Ballantine for what looked like a long, lucrative, boring career.

On this particular day - George Washington's Birthday 1960 - Califano was home sick with a muscle spasm in his back. His wife was having a meeting in the living room of her Reform Democratic Club. "They were so disorganized it was awful," said Califano, who had wandered through the room. "I had no interest, zero interest in politics."

Califano, then 28, had just read two books - James MacGregor Burns' political biography of John F. Kennedy and a collection of Kennedy's speeches. "I kind of got excited about Kennedy from Burns' book and the speeches and ended up going around, although I'd never met him, debating for him at the Reform Democratic clubs."

After the 1960 election, on the advice of a law school friend who was his contact, Califano wrote the new general counsel of the Defense Department, Cyrus Vance, and asked for a job. He got it, and came to Washington, leaving Dewey, Ballantine with what he described as a "loose departure arrangement" because "I was only going to stay here for a year." He worked on a variety of projects, including reorganization of the Defense Department, then assisting McNamara in his fight with Congress over his authority to clear political statements made by generals and other military personnel. Califano was offered - at age 32 - the job of general counsel of the Army, and grabbed it. Then he was a special assistant to McNamara and Vance, then deputy secretary, when Johnson called McNamara one day in 1965.

According to McNamara, interviewed in his presidential office on top of the World Bank, Johnson said something like, "Bob, I hear you've got some guy named Califano over there. Must be Italian. What does he know?' And I said, 'He's doing a great job.' And he said, 'Hell, I know that already. That's why I'm calling you I want him.' And I said, 'I've gotta run this department. He's my right arm.' He said, 'I want him. Surely you wouldn't deny me the best man in the country to run the White House.'"

Califano went. He arrived just in time for the Watts riots, a kind of ordeal by fire in an almost literal way during which he says he managed to impress Johnson though it was as much luck as skill that things broke right.

Califano's operating style was, first, to drive everyone, including himself, very hard - working 12- and 14-hour days, six and seven days a week. And, second, not to wait for direct orders when Johnson expressed a desire. Califano's hard-driving approach got him a reputation for being abrasive, a reputation that McPherson says was not entirely deserved.

"I always felt that was not fair," McPherson said, "because he was much reducing the vigor of Johnson's demands." When Califano thought Johnson was wrong, he would not, like McPherson, confront him directly. "Joe simply would keep coming back," McPherson said. "He was persistent. He wore Johnson down."

If Johnson expressed a wish, Califano took it as a command. One member of Califano's staff at the time recalls, "The president would say, 'We should do something about housing,' and Joe would set up a meeting. Once you had everyone in his office, he'd give out assignments. People didn't object. They wanted leadership."

It was a strange match in a way - the Harvard lawyer from New York and the southwestern pol who felt so ill at ease with northeastern liberals. But both men had prodigious appetites for work. Both shared an expansive view of what government ought to do - the kind of ambitious, aggressive approach embodied in the Great Society Johnson was articulating. And both had enormous confidence in their ability to manage affairs.

It turned out to be a natural marriage. Califano says now that either Johnson or McNamara was the most intelligent person he's ever met. "I'm not sure which." The president and the Brooklyn Italian boy who came to be known as the assistant president spent hours together every day. Califano says that in his last two years in the White House, he ate dinner more often with Johnson than he did with his family.

When Califano sent in the standard letter of resignation as Johnson's term came to an end, Johnson responded with what Califano calls "the nicest letter I ever got." It hangs behind his desk now, near a picture, signed by Johnson, showing Califano whispering into one of those enormous Johnsonian ears.

"You were the captain I wanted," Johnson wrote in the letter, "and you steered the course well. The trust I have placed in you is a clear demonstration of my high regard. Your loyal and unfailing fulfillment of that trust is a clear demonstration of your energies and your talents."

The story behind the letter, according to Califano, is that Johnson's secretary, Juanita Roberts, called Califano immediately after Johnson had composed it to tell Califano: "The president just dictated the most beautiful letter," Califano recalls her saying. "I hope he signs it."

The day begins sometime after 7 a.m. with the arrival of his driver, Charles Holton, who takes him from his three-story, white brick house in Northwest Washington down to the concrete building Marcel Breuer designed at the foot of Capitol Hill to house the upper echelons of HEW. Along the way, Califano plows through four papers - The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post - reading along so quickly (front sections only) that it's hard to believe that he is doing more than just skimming headlines. In fact, he complains that he considers himself less well-informed on some issues now, like foreign affairs, then he was when he was practicing law.

He might pick up the phone in the back of his black Ford LTD to call Fred Bohen, his executive secretary, or another aide, before he gets to the office. Reaching for the phone is a reflex action for Califano, the way a truck driver goes for the gear shift lever.

Within the limits imposed by the General Services Administration, Califano's office is bright and even manages to be cheerful. His desk sits in a far corner next to windows that line the outer wall, looking over the Mall and The View of the Capitol. He has pictures and other memorabilia from the Johnson days on the wall behind his desk, shelves laden with books (which are there for no particular reason, according to him), his favorite cartoons of himself on the wall as one enters the office, and a sitting area with overstuffed chairs, couches and a rocking chair a la Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy for Himself to sit in when meeting with aides, visitors or whomever. On the wall behind the couches are brightly colored abstract designs with aphorisms from famous philosophers and statesmen designed by Corita Kent. Telephones seem to be everywhere, including the special hotline that Califano put in so that he could get his assistant secretaries and top aides at the touch of a button.

Despite the trappings of power, he is not what one pictures when contemplating the image of the man responsible for spending $181 billion of the taxpayers' money. He has curly black hair now shot with gray. He still dresses in suits whose style of tailoring was fashionable in the heyday of the Great Society. His pants are about an inch too short. Much of the day he spends in shirtsleeves (although his tie stays firmly in place and sleeves rolled down) working in an office he keeps numbingly cold. Almost every day, he goes out to do a quick jog - three times around the block on the Mall - keeping his time on a stopwatch given to him by his secretaries so he can come back and announce his time to anyone interested (and those who aren't). Except when angry, he speaks in a quiet, rasping voice and emphasizes points by raising his eyebrows and opening his eyes wide so that they appear to be bugging out of his head - making him the easy caricature that cartoonists love.

Although reportedly a fearsome figure when angry, he maintains an informal relationship with his immediate staff, most of whom call him "Joe." His secretary, Muriel Hartley, refers to him sardonically (out of his presence) as "The Master" and the assistant secretary for public affairs, former New York Times reporter Eileen Shanahan, has a bumper sticker on her desk that reads, "Califano is Dangerous to My Mental Health." Shanahan has written in the word "mental" herself. "He has a sense of humor," she says. "You can kid him about himself."

During the time when Califano represented The Post, he came into frequent contact with reporters, who regarded him with respect, though hardly with awe. In 1973, lawyers for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew were trying to have reporter Richard M. Cohen appear in court to testify about who was giving him information concerning the bribe charges against Agnew. During a strategy meeting with Califano, Cohen - ever the quick man with a quip - observed, "You know, usually it's the Italian client and his Jewish lawyer. This time it's the other way around."

He can kid about himself, too. The day after the Bakke decision came down from the Supreme Court, while meeting with aides to discuss its implications and to prepare for a weekend television appearance, he delighted in quoting the transcript from an earlier appearance he had made when he had asserted it was "inconceivable" that the court would rule in Bakke's favor.

In deference to his public relations campaign against smoking, tobacco is not burned in his presence by HEW staffers. Getting into his car at one point to go over to the White House, he twitted Holton. "I smell smoke, Charles."

"Oh, no, sir," Holton said, "unh-unh," denying the undeniable. Undersecretary Hale Champion suggested that Califano might be smelling one of the cigars he had in his pocket which he was thinking about smoking - but later.

For all the power he has, for all of the money he made while practicing law, for all of the famous friends he has, Califano retains a homey, haimisch quality that softens the reputation for abrasiveness and the legend of the lawyer with steel-trap mind. He reaches into family experiences during staff meetings, on one occasion recalling an incident involving his daughter that he thought offered guidance to himself and his staff about how parents might react to new regulations HEW is considering. And he seems to remember, despite it all, that he is still Joey Califano from Brooklyn. He has avoided the imperious arrogance that some poor kids who make good affect to mask their origins. In part, that's because Califano's origins were not all that humble. His parents were both born in the United States. His father had an administrative job with IBM and his mother taught school. Califano went to parochial and private Catholic schools for his education and his parents were determined to pay for every nickel of it themselves. If Califano sometimes likes to give the idea he was born in a log cabin, that can be taken with a grain of salt. "I think Joe likes to think of himself as a poor boy who made good," says one friend. "Joe was a middle-class boy who made good."

As a man who has succeeded at everything he has attempted, Califano is often described as being "brilliant," but it is not the sort of brilliance that manifests itself in long, complicated, literary descriptions of a problem and its solution. Rather, Califano proceeds like a mechanic, taking a situation apart piece by piece, looking at each piece and then putting them back together, not necessarily in the same order. Some people who work with him and observe him think the process he runs works very well. Other are not so certain.

Califano has a reputation for being able to read and absorb vast quantities of material, bringing his attention into an intense focus on the matter immediately at hand. According to Rick Cotton, one of his aides, what is impressive about Califano is "the energy, the intelligence and the attention to detail that he has. He engages - it's an exaggeration to say every piece of paper that comes in front of him - but it comes pretty close. Certainly in terms of volume, I haven't seen anyone else do it."

Califano's attention to detail is described by Cotton and others as something of a passion. "For whatever reason," another HEW official said, "he keeps the pressure on and people perform. I feel the pressure. He doesn't often get let down." At times, to hear people at HEW tell it, the demands may seem excessive. "But I'll tell you, it's a funny thing," the HEW official continued. "I find myself going an extra mile for the son of a bitch."

"He doesn't want everything tomorrow," Cotton says. "He wants everything yesterday. And I'm not sure that's not an operational style required by anyone running a large operation. I think he comes in here with the idea that any political appointee has a limited time in the government. And the question is how much are you going to get done in that amount of time, and that does drive him. And that's definitely always present in his thinking."

"I figure I've got four years," Califano explains. In that period of time, almost half over now, he wants to reorganize HEW - not by any means the first time that that's been done - and demonstrate to the American people "that social programs can work and that they make sense. That it makes sense to the American people to invest some money in helping poor people . . .

"I think," he goes on, "basically the people of this country are very compassionate people. With all the swing to the right and all that stuff, they're essentially compassionate people. What they're concerned about is whether or not the money they're pumping in to places like HEW is doing any good or doing as much good as it should. And I'd like to demonstrate that you can deliver services cost effectively as well as compassionately, and that's what I'm about."

His statement of purpose doesn't leave open the remotest possibility that his effort won't be successful. According to Hale Champion, "Joe's assumption is that you can do anything about anything if you try hard enough."

The hard-charging spirit and the pace that Califano keeps inspire his aides to talk about him as though he were the Iron Man of HEW - never tiring, ever fresh, etc. In fact, he does yawn as he goes through his day. And the secret of his energy isn't so mysterious. He says he goes to bed early - before 11 - most nights, rarely attending dinner parties or embassy functions. "If I go out two nights during the week, I feel it," he says.

Califano's drive, his insistent demands on staff, his careful attention to detail, have another side. According to yet another HEW official, Califano has trouble delegating. "I think he thinks he's a better administrator than he really is. He has brought in good people, but he can't delegate. Policy is kept in his office, with his special assistants, which hurts badly some of the senior people he's brought in who find themselves running agencies with no authority over the policies they're supposed to be carrying out."

To some people inside the department and out of it, Califano seems at times like a publicity hound. He feels no hesitation in picking up the phone to suggest to a reporter or to an editor "that there's a great story that nobody's covering," according to Shanahan, or to complain about the way something was covered. Califano has several friends who are in the news business, including Elizabeth Drew of the New Yorker, Art Buchwald, Howard Simons and Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, Mel Elfin of Newsweek, Daniel Schorr of the Des Moines Register to name a few. Shanahan says that Califano enjoys the company of journalists. His associations also give him an easy sort of entree that some of his colleagues in the administration and the White House may envy.

"What am I supposed to say, that he hates publicity?" Shanahan replies to the suggestion that Califano may be publicity hungry. "I think it's more than that. He's concerned about (1) correcting things that are either wrong or out of focus and (2) getting the message across." Getting the message across, according to Shanahan, means that Califano wants to counter the popular notion of Democrats as Big Spending, Big Government types, proving to the contrary "that we can manage this monster."

But the most stinging criticism of Califano - and the one that seems to bother him the most when told of it - concerns neither his management style nor his policy goals, but his way of dealing with people. One official refers to "that disgraceful attribute of his" - insulting people in the presence of others. Another says, "He can be personally abusive to his staff in front of others. It's bad enough to do it. It's worse in front of others. Often people are just victims of his bad mood or pressure that's on him. He knows when he's been bad. When he's been particularly bad for a long period of time, you'll get a lot of arm hugs and phone calls."

Califano's lapses don't bother everyone around him. "There's no question that he loses his temper," Cotton said. "That's just a fact about him. I guess I don't regard that as personally abusive. It's a little like Washington's weather. The clouds form, but they go away quickly. He gets things out."

How much of that is calculated on Califano's part and how much is loss of temper is hard to know. To hear those who were around for the closing days of the Ford administration tell it, Califano inherited a department that had become, if not moribund, then certainly comatose under his predecessor, L. David Matthews. Califano's arrival was like a cold shower, if not a shot of adrenaline to the sprawling bureaucracy. "Lines have been tightened up and we salute when we're supposed to," one holdover said. "I think we now make policy as a department faster than with any secretary I can remember."

This particular bureaucrat started out criticizing Califano ("He's a very hard-driving man who puts pressures on people that are excessive.") but ultimately came around to a different perspective - "The net effect of it is that you're responsive. You meet the conditions, do the best you can.

"I'd rather have an HEW secretary who stands up and fights for what he believes in and is trying to provide some public leadership than a secretary who leaves HEW an unconcerned party to these issues. David Matthews was my idea of about the worst secretary we could have had. He didn't do anything. As a bureaucrat, I felt frustrated. It looked as though government policy was not to make waves. Taking a step back, I give Califano a lot of high marks. He's the kind of secretary I'd like to see. He's prepared to engage in public discussion of issues. He doesn't waffle. He sticks to it. He's not going to give away the store to a lot of interest groups."

Califano says he intends to stay where he is until the end of Carter's first term. After that, what he does is up in the air, although he says it's unlikely that he'll stay at HEW - or run for the Senate from New York.

He does a wonderful imitation of a conversation he had when he said he called Henry Kissinger, mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for the Senate from New York, to assure Kissinger that he would not run.

"I said, 'Henry, you have nothing to worry about. I'm going back into the practice of law.' And Kissinger said, 'Oh, Joe, it would the most interesting race. It would be more interesting than any other race including the presidential race.'"

But Califano closes the door on that when asked if he thinks it's possible. "I don't," he says in answer to a question. "No, I don't see that."

For one thing, he says, he will have two sons moving into college within the next few years, "which changes my whole set of financial needs."

All of this leaves the question unanswered where all the driving with the foot down to the floor gets Califano. In terms of legislation, the answer so far is not very far. Welfare reform, which stumped Richard Nixon, is now described by Califano as a four-year effort. Hospital cost containment appears to be dying on the operating table. National health insurance is still in the test tube and may never get out. Administratively, Califano has embarked on an extensive campaign to reorganize HEW - changing things around and instituting competitive bidding and other procedures where they had never been used before. How successful these efforts will be and what impact they will have probably won't be measurable for years - not until Califano has departed and his picture hangs next to those of his predecessors on the wall outside the secretary's office.

But if Califano has any doubts about meeting his goals before his time is up, he says nothing about them. If he has any doubts of a deeper sort, he keeps them quiet as well. "To be a good manager," Ross says, "you have to appear decisive. If you've got some anxiety, you don't show it and don't talk about it. If you have some doubt, that's between you and your Maker. I think he does have some self-doubts and it isn't a macho thing - although there may be some of that - so much as 'this is the way a leader acts.' You make your decision, you do the best you can and that's it. Life goes on."