The Gentleman From New York : Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Biographyby Godfrey Hodgson
Coinciding with his departure from the United States Senate after twenty-four years of distinguished service, this major work is the first comprehensive account of the life and ideas of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a great political figure and a brilliant and complex man. Godfrey Hodgson, a highly regarded expert on American politics and history, has known Senator… See more details below
Coinciding with his departure from the United States Senate after twenty-four years of distinguished service, this major work is the first comprehensive account of the life and ideas of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a great political figure and a brilliant and complex man. Godfrey Hodgson, a highly regarded expert on American politics and history, has known Senator Moynihan for four decades and had full access to him and to his political papers while preparing this book. In addition, he interviewed dozens of Moyhnihan's friends, aides, and antagonists.
Both admiring and critical, this balanced portrait follows Moynihan's rise from an unpromising childhood in a broken middle-class family (not, as many believe, a tenement boyhood in New York's Hell's Kitchen). It explains how a self-described "birthright Democrat" could decide to work for Richard Nixon, and how a man elected to the Senate as the darling of the neoconservatives could come to oppose Ronald Reagan and fight for the goals of mainstream Democrats. It deals at length with Moynihan's sometimes embattled tenure as our ambassador to India and to the United Nations. Above all, it is the history of a mind, portraying Moynihan as a prophet who again and again saw through the conventional wisdom of liberals and conservatives alike, and who expressed his insights with clarity, vigor, and not a little wit. From "benign neglect" to "defining deviancy down," his formulation of some of the central problems of American society are sure to remain part of our national discourse for years to come.
Among the many prominent people who appear in these pages, some in fascinating behind-the-scenes encounters, are Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon; Henry Kissinger; Indira Gandhi; and Elizabeth Moynihan, the senator's wife and a remarkable figure in her own right. This splendid biography powerfully illuminates the life and ideas of a courageous, controversial, truly impressive American, whose entire career embodies a sustained faith in the possibility of a Great Society.
The New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends that plague thee thus!
Why lookst thou so?'With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part I
Over the past quarter century, Ginny Van Horn has often walked up McDougall Road to Pindars Corners. It is an idyllic walk through a bowl of wooded hills, with a stream bubbling under tall shade trees alongside. But when Mrs. Van Horn strolled up the gentle slope on the morning of July 8, 1999, she turned the corner by her neighbor's house, and was suddenly confronted by some three hundred reporters, cameramen and photographers. 'There sure is a lot of commotion,' she said. In twenty-five years, she'd never seen anything like it. No wonder; for what she had walked into was that late-twentieth-century political phenomenon, a full-blooded media feeding frenzy.
The commotion was understandable. It is not every day that the First Lady of the United States, or FLOTUS, as she is known to the Secret Service, decides to run, or to think seriously about running, for senator from New York. And even when she did make that momentous decision, not every candidate would think of launching her campaign from a hayfield at Pindars Corners in Delaware County.
The hayfield belongs to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose farm lies just at the bend of McDougall Road. The hay bales had been tidied away, and when Elizabeth Moynihan, the senator's wife, looked out her window she thought the farm had been visited by space invaders. There were, shecalculated, thirty satellite trucks on the hill. The barn was full of portable restrooms, and children prepared iced lemonade for the perspiring reporters in the stable.
A long chain of events had conspired to make that innocent upstate hayfield for a few brief hours the vortex of media attention and political calculation. Hillary Rodham Clinton was contemplating a campaign to succeed Moynihan as one of New York's senators. Liz Moynihan had counseled her that if she was to have any chance of success she must make a strong showing upstate. Mrs. Clinton was pleased to take that advice and had traveled to the rustic southern tier of New York State in search of the photo opportunity that might establish her in the voters' minds as a serious candidate for the whole state, and not just New York City.
At 10:30 the First Lady arrived with her team at the Binghamton airport. They drove to the white schoolhouse just up the hill from the Moynihan farm. It is a simple wooden building, warmed in winter by a Victorian cast-iron stove, where the senator has written eighteen books. After half an hour's chat there, the First Lady, in a navy pants suit, and the senator, in white chino pants and a button-down blue shirt, waving a white baseball cap to emphasize the points of his discourse, emerged from the schoolhouse and sauntered down the lane to face the media, by now installed on a large wooden stand.
The senator introduced his guest. As a tease, he pretended to forget what the reporters had come to hear. 'My God,' he said, beaming serenely, 'I almost forgot. I'm here to say that I hope she will go all the way. I mean to go all the way with her. I think she's going to win.'
The not-yet-declared candidate began by paying tribute to her host. She said she was embarking on a 'listening tour' of New York, and how better to begin it than by 'listening to probably the wisest New Yorker.' The questions on everyone's mind, she acknowledged, were 'why the Senate, and why New York and why me.' Without dealing specifically with the question why she was not running in Illinois, her native state, or in Arkansas, where she had lived for years, she explained that she cared deeply about the issues that mattered to New York. She promised that if she did run and if she were elected, she would be 'strong and effective for the people of New York.'
In a jovial mood, the veteran senator fielded questions for his guest from the New York press. Almost the very first came from an old friend, Gabe Pressman, of WNBC. What did Mrs. Clinton say, Pressman asked, to those who say that 'it takes a lot of chutzpah to come to a state you're not from and run for the Senate?'
'Gabe,' said the senator. 'We're in Delaware County. Now what was that word?'
When the laughter had subsided, Mrs. Clinton said that she, too, thought it was a strange idea when people first suggested that she might run for the Senate from New York, but that chutzpah was not always a bad thing. After a few more such bantering exchanges, she left, in a simple eight-car motorcade, to continue her listening in a barbecue restaurant, a junior high school, the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown and other locations carefully selected by some of the sharpest minds in politics for their cultural distance from the twin summits of the political and media ziggurats in Washington and Manhattan.
Behind this benign, if bizarre, encounter, there were rich layers of irony and meaning. Hillary Clinton, for one thing, had not always been on the best of terms with either Pat or Liz Moynihan. Publicly, the senator had spoken slightingly of her cherished plans for health care reform. Privately, the senator's wife had not hidden her impression that Hillary Clinton 'didn't get it,' meaning that she didn't understand how either the Senate or the senator worked. When Clinton began to consider running for the Senate from New York, she met several times with both Moynihans. They were impressed by her intelligence and candor. Yet, as late as the eve of the great Pindars Corners love-in, Liz Moynihan had her doubts about the wisdom of allowing Clinton to use her home as the launch pad for a Senate campaign. She drew the line at some of the suggestions made by the First Lady's overly enthusiastic handlers. They wanted a rope line to keep the media at a distance. 'No rope line,' Liz said with finality, and disappeared into the house, ostensibly to telephone her husband. She emerged, quoting him as saying, 'You'll have to find another farm!' Liz went on, 'I've never made a circus for Pat, and I'm not going to make a circus for her.' Besides, she added shrewdly, you don't want to dilute the image. 'It's worth a million votes upstate.'
Pat Moynihan has the reputation of standing far above the manipulative calculations of media politics. The hayfield photo op showed that he and his political manager, who is also his wife, know a thing or two about how to stage-manage a media event.
The sun shone. The reporters were like pussycats, and the Moynihans and the First Lady had a happy dinner together in the best restaurant for miles around. And it was indeed a great picture, the veteran senator at his most avuncular, the young contender at her most earnest and aspiring.
This strange political epithalamium, this laying on of political hands, was an end and a beginning. It was, so far as anyone could see at the time, the beginning of what promised to be an extraordinary political career for Mrs. Clinton, one that could take her from the humiliations inflicted by her husband's indiscretions, to the United States Senate, and perhaps, as some hoped and others dreaded, to the White House. But that was all speculation, and for the future. It was also, barring the unlikely, the effective end of one of the most interesting political careers in twentieth-century America, a record of controversy and achievement that stretched back almost five decades. The senator would serve out his term, and there would be battles to fight in which he would play his allotted part. But at seventy-two, recovering from major back surgery in the baking summer of 1999, Pat Moynihan had essentially completed a voyage that had brought him from the most unpromising beginnings, in spite of near shipwreck on more than one occasion, to a safe haven as one of the most admired politicians of his time and certainly the most creative and original thinker among them.
Early on Friday morning, November 6, 1998, Liz Moynihan dialed Tony Bullock, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's chief of staff, at home. A phone call had alerted her to the fact that the AP wire was carrying a story that Carl McCall, comptroller of New York State, was 'not ruling out' a run for the Senate against her husband. McCall had just been reelected with a 64 percent margin. Bullock's assignment from Mrs. Moynihan was simple: 'Get McCall to say he would not run.'
Bullock, a cheerful extrovert with considerable political experience and a last-ditch Moynihan loyalist, was convinced that McCall would be 'squished like a bug' if he did run against Moynihan. Furthermore, he thought McCall, whom he liked, would do himself real damage in New York politics if he went on making noises about a run for the Senate. Within the hour he had completed his assignment, extracting a statement from McCall, for public release, that he would not run against Moynihan. 'I will not challenge Pat,' McCall's statement said. '[He is] a true conscience for Democrats in New York and across this great country'if he decides to seek a fifth term. I will, however, in the coming weeks and months sit down with family, friends and advisers and think about my future.'
At about 10:30 a.m., Liz Moynihan called again. This time the news was shattering, both in substance and manner. 'You should know that Pat is going to tell Gabe Pressman that he will not run again.' Gabe Pressman had been covering Moynihan and New York politics for decades as the chief political reporter for the NBC television affiliate in New York City; in fact Moynihan had known him since Averell Harriman's campaign for governor in 1954. Pressman's show would be taped on Friday and aired on Sunday. The senator would hold a press conference to explain in his office in Washington, but not until Monday morning. Liz was emphatic. No one must know until Pressman's show aired, and Bullock mustn't try to talk them out of this because their minds were made up.
Tony Bullock made a brief effort to do just that. If the senator was determined not to run again in the year 2000, then he should at all costs hold off until later in 1999. It was far too early to be turned into a lame duck, and, besides, major political earthquakes of this kind had to be planned and handled. Liz Moynihan shuns the limelight. But she has run four successful statewide elections as her husband's campaign manager, two of them victories by record margins. She knows her own mind. 'We're doing it,' she said, 'and that's that.' At which she and Pat raced off to the taping. Would they at least commit to a press conference or a statement later in the day? Again, the answer was no.
Moynihan taped the interview. Yes, he was going. No, it was not his health. (There had been various rumors, stimulated by the fact that at a local campaign event a few days earlier he felt dizzy, apparently from flu.) After twenty-four years, it was time to move on. This was a good moment, after the Democratic successes in the midterm elections.
After the taping, Liz set off for an archeological event at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. (She is an expert on Mughal India in general, and ancient Indian gardens in particular.) The senator was on the way down in the elevator at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, home of the NBC studios. As he entered the elevator, a man said, 'I heard you're not running.' As they hit the ground floor, some kid came up, and said, 'So, senator, you really made some news on Gabe's show today!'
News, and rumor, travel fast in this age. Before he left the building, Tony Bullock in Washington had calls from the Associated Press in Albany, from a TV station in Buffalo, from Fox News and from Moynihan's former press secretary Tim Russert, now with NBC, all on the line at the same moment. And they were just the first of several dozen calls. The reporters tried out one hypothesis after another, each more fantastic than the one before. Some asked whether Moynihan hated Chuck Schumer (Charles E. Schumer, newly elected to the other New York Senate seat) and was quitting in protest. Or was he scared that Alfonse D'Amato might run for his seat? Had he, perhaps, fainted on the Pressman show?
In the new age of American media, Bullock reflected, the age of CNN, MSNBC, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, the Internet, NY 1, Geraldo and the rest of them, the pace was getting crazy. If they couldn't get a quote, in Bullock's rueful experience, they would be happy to make things up, or fill the endless hours of airtime with speculation from pundits, including enemies who would not hesitate to use the opportunity to do as much damage as they could to the senator's reputation. He wondered whether the senator and the senator's wife, both bred to politics before this circus atmosphere had taken hold, fully understood how nasty and angry the media were getting now that they were feeling bounced by a major story without warning.
Gabe Pressman got his scoop, but only just. At 6:04 p.m., an hour after Moynihan's news broke, it was announced that Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, was resigning. That bumped Moynihan's retirement from the lead in the New York Times, and the editorial commenting on it into second place. Nationally, Moynihan's departure had been largely upstaged by that of Gingrich. 'No matter,' Moynihan commented. 'Everyone has been wonderfully kind, and it's over.'
The faithful Bullock was left alone with his cell phone, trying to keep the stories going in the right direction. Somehow at the end of a day of chaos and panic it seemed that Liz had been right all along, that this was a much better way to do it. 'No managed event, thank you kindly. They did it on impulse and gut feeling. In all their political decisions they seem to know instinctively what will work and what will not.' In retrospect he felt what they did was masterly. They had caught the press asleep at the switch and slipped a pivotal decision through in the aftermath of the surprise Democratic victories in the midterm elections.
Actually, the Moynihans had decided after the 1994 election that it would be time to go in 2000. A whole web of subtle calculations and feelings went into that decision. One was Liz's wish to see more of a husband who had been bound on the wheel of politics and public service since they married more than forty years before. There were indeed health problems, though they were not in themselves enough to precipitate a decision to quit. The crucial question was not whether Moynihan would run for a fifth term in 2000. That they had decided he would not do. The all-important decision was about timing. The Democratic victories in the midterms, and especially the fact there would still be a Democratic senior senator from New York in the shape of Charles Schumer, were satisfying and invigorating for a New York Democratic party that had been divided and demoralized for years. But it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that even the possibility of having to run in a primary against Carl McCall, an African American, was a deciding factor.
For a McCall-versus-Moynihan clash in the New York Democratic primary would have unleashed the demons of race, those demons Moynihan feared more than anything for his beloved city. They were demons that had also pursued him personally through the two most traumatic political experiences of his life. One was the reception of the so-called 'Moynihan Report' on the crisis of the African American family, the other was the rage that had greeted the leaking of a memorandum he had written to President Nixon, saying that what the issue of race in America needed was a period of 'benign neglect.' As Moynihan saw it, he had been pursued by the Furies after those episodes in 1965 and 1970. He bitterly resented the way he had been accused of racism. A primary campaign against an African American, even a distinguished man whom he personally liked and respected, was bound to summon up the never wholly dormant issues of racial hostility in New York. Moynihan himself commented merely that a McCall run in the primary "would have been the beginning of Lord knows how many months of people saying, 'Will he run?' 'Should he run?' which would gradually turn into, 'Hasn't he been there too long?'"
The timing of his extrication from New York politics having been thus managed with inspired opportunism, the tributes duly flowed richly in from media and politicos alike. 'A Giant Still Walks Among Us,' the Daily News had headlined a column a few months earlier about whether Moynihan might retire. 'For all the talk about his cerebral skills,' said the New York Post now, 'nobody did more to bring home the bacon for New York.' 'A true statesman,' said Republican Governor George Pataki, and Republican New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani echoed him: 'New Yorkers will lose a great public servant and a loyal friend.' Few people in our history, save Thomas Jefferson, said Moynihan's close friend in the Senate, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, have had as much impact on our nation and on our government as Daniel Patrick Moynihan. One of the half dozen most brilliant men ever to sit in the United States Senate, said someone. Vice President Al Gore responded promptly, calling Moynihan 'both an extraordinary public servant as well as a visionary thinker . . . More than anyone, Senator Moynihan has been consistently ahead of the curve.' From Highfill, Arkansas, the president of the United States, whom Moynihan had attacked almost contemptuously on health care in 1993 and 1994 and angrily savaged on welfare in 1996, felt moved to issue a statement saying that Moynihan's life story could have been written by Horatio Alger. 'His rise from a poor childhood in New York City's Hell's Kitchen to his place as the most popular elected statewide official in New York during four Senate terms is an inspirational life story.'
Leaving aside the detail that Moynihan did not spend his childhood in Hell's Kitchen, the substance of Clinton's tribute is true. The odds were surely stacked high against a boy with his start in life making it to the United States Senate as 'the gentleman from New York.' Disaster befell his mother and her three children when Moynihan's father, a talented journalist and publicist, but also a gambler and drinker, abandoned them. When young Moynihan was at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, or even when he was sitting in Governor Averell Harriman's outer office in Albany, entertaining supplicants with his rich repertoire of jokes and anecdotes, no one would have given a cent for his chances of climbing to the top. He himself sees his career as a series of serendipitous 'chance encounters and random walks.' One such chance encounter led him to study at City College of New York, and a random walk took him into a navy recruiting office that opened the highway of advancement.
A better metaphor, perhaps, might be to say that a political career is not like the steady, powered impetus of a locomotive. It is more like a sailboat. To keep afloat on the mighty, unpredictable waters of public opinion, the political navigator must know how to avoid the most dangerous storms, tack against adverse winds, and when the wind drops to a calm, catch the lightest breeze that will keep him on course.
A superficial reading of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's half century in politics would see him tacking broadly from left to right and then to the left again. He started out as something pretty close to the ideal type of New Deal Democrat of the two decades after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The word liberal has fallen into some disrepute. But the young man who returned from London, where he had instinctively felt at home in the social democratic Labour party of the postwar years, to work for Averell Harriman in New York started with political beliefs pretty typical of the Cold War liberals of his generation. He never had any sympathy with communism, perhaps in part because he was brought up in a world of fierce Catholic anticommunism, in part because, unlike some of his friends and intellectually gifted contemporaries, he never felt the slightest temptation to embrace Marxist ideas. And perhaps because of the Irish influences of his childhood, he instinctively felt more at home with the 'regulars' in Democratic politics, as opposed to the 'reformers,' who when he was growing up in New York were more apt to be Jews or Wasps. He felt perfectly comfortable working for Governor Averell Harriman, a patrician with a penchant for reform. From Albany, or rather from Syracuse, where he risked being becalmed by a contract to write the history of Harriman's administration, it was inevitable that Moynihan would trim every sail to catch the breeze that would waft him to work for John F. Kennedy.
Moynihan made good use of his time in the Kennedy administration. Dropped almost by chance into a job at the Labor Department which put him in charge of research, Moynihan exploited not expertise as a social scientist, for at that stage his knowledge was limited and not particularly specialized, but an instinct for understanding the way social science could illuminate the issues in politics. A few years later, steered by chance into the Education Department at Harvard (he later succeeded in moving to the Government Department), he duly transferred his attention to education. Before long he had contrived to turn a seminar on education into a powerful tool for criticizing many of the liberal assumptions of social science generally.
The liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s'and it spread broadly in those days across the Republican as well as the Democratic party'saw political action as almost the executive arm of social science. Capitalism works, the liberals (as opposed to the Left) accepted. By increasing productivity, it generated economic growth. This in turn made it possible to meet people's needs, and a surprising number of their dreams, out of incremental resources; thus the class conflicts predicted by Marx were unnecessary. So social problems, like industrial problems, could be solved. The problems must be identified'poverty, ignorance, disease, inequality, teenage delinquency, racial injustice, it made no difference. Programs could be, must be, designed to solve them, by government leaders informed and enlightened by social science. Money and other skilled resources, such as trained social scientists, would be applied to the problems as 'inputs.' The 'outputs' would be predictable. The problems would be solved.
Later, indeed not much later, Moynihan and his friends, especially those associated with the journal The Public Interest, developed a powerful critique of the way politicians in the Age of Liberalism had exaggerated what social science could do for them. They came to believe that social science had no business proposing policy; its proper role was limited to monitoring government action, not designing it. But for a time, in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Moynihan did share the general assumptions of optimistic, 'can-do' liberalism. That was the style, as well as the philosophy, of those two Democratic administrations.
Moynihan played a significant part in three rather typical political enterprises of that period. He produced, and wrapped in a typically Rooseveltian phrase, 'One Third of a Nation,' a report on why so many young men failed the physical and mental tests for selective service. He threw himself into the Johnson administration's War on Poverty, setting himself, with some courage, against those who were carried away by the contemporary social science craze for 'community action.' With the practicality of someone who had actually experienced poverty, he argued instead that what the poor needed was simply money. He wrote what came to be known as the 'Moynihan Report,' but whose real title was 'The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.' Nothing could be more representative of the liberal way of thinking. Social science data showed that African American families were in crisis because, even when the economy picked up and black men no longer lost their jobs, they still left their children and the children's mothers. Very well: the data constituted a case for national action.
Yet the report was to be tied around Moynihan's neck like the ancient mariner's albatross. 'The man hath penance done . . .' In the complicated way in which events are always shaped by chance, Moynihan, having succeeded in inserting into the Johnson administration's thinking his ideas about what was happening to the demographics of the black family, left the country, not as it happens for a pointless junket or a well-deserved rest, but an official trip to what was then Yugoslavia. What he learned there powerfully influenced one of the strongest strands of his thinking, his belief in the supremacy of ethnicity over class in determining political loyalties. 'Blood,' he came to believe, 'is stronger than class.' While he was out of the country, he became drawn into the bitter rivalries of the New York Democratic party. His name was floated for mayor; then that possibility evaporated. Instead, he found himself on the losing side in a primary race for president of the New York City Council.
To run for office, he had to quit his job in the Johnson administration and somehow the manner of his quitting aroused the powerful, if often irrational, resentment of President Johnson. So Moynihan found himself without a job, either in Washington or New York. Worse was to come. Savage, racially motivated rioting broke out in Watts, in South Central Los Angeles. It was not the first of the racial riots of the 1960s, but it was the first on a scale that alerted the national government and the whole country to how badly, even as things were improving for Southern blacks, they were going wrong in the big cities outside the South. Journalists cottoned to the idea that a 'secret' document called the 'Moynihan Report' contained the administration's assessment of what had gone wrong. (It was not in fact secret, though it had not been given wide circulation.) They either read and misunderstood the Report, or'more often'read the inaccurate interpretations of others. Moynihan became a celebrity, but in a way that threatened to be disastrous for his political career. The albatross had been firmly tied around the mariner's neck.
Most of the press coverage was in fact respectful. Moynihan found himself regarded by both academia and by NBC as an expert on 'the cities,' a phrase that had become the new euphemism for racial conflict. But there were two segments of society who did not like the implication they read in the Report, that the unemployment, poverty and family breakdown that afflicted individual black men and women in urban ghettos were somehow 'caused' by a generic phenomenon, specific to African Americans and caused by their history, called 'the crisis of the Negro family.' That is not what Moynihan had written. Indeed it came close to being the opposite of what he said. But many black people, or at least in the first instance many black intellectuals, felt that he had displayed insensitivity, bordering on racism. And at least some white intellectuals on the liberal Left agreed. They accused Moynihan of 'blaming the victim.' And some openly charged him with racism.
The effect on Moynihan was profound. The bright hopes of 1963 had been ripped away. The president with whom he identified to some degree, and in whom he had reposed his political hopes, both for the country and for himself, was dead. He had tried, and in the end failed, to win the trust of his successor. Suddenly he found himself without a job in the executive branch, his political career in New York apparently over before it had begun and now unjustly reviled for a serious attempt to understand a profound social problem. It was a bitter time, and he was bitter. He went through a crisis of depression, a dark night of the soul.
It is also true that, seen from the outside, nothing terribly disastrous happened. The very day that Moynihan learned he had lost in the New York primary, he had a very pleasant offer of a year at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University, a delightful place, where, to every external eye, he and Liz were as happy as could be. And before the academic year was over, he had received what many academics would kill for, an invitation to join the faculty at Harvard. He moved to Cambridge. He became the director of the Joint Center for Urban Studies, run by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before long he led a faculty seminar, on education and equality, that attracted more attention than anything of its kind in Cambridge since Henry Kissinger's disarmament seminars in the 1950s.
Yet within himself, Moynihan did go through a crisis in the late 1960s, and so did the country. His generation, that of those just old enough to have been actively involved in World War II, were filled with a bursting optimism'all the more so if, like Pat Moynihan, they had not actually been exposed to the blood and the dirt, the fear and the emotional trauma of combat. The country seemed to be on a roll. The war ended the Depression, and tens of millions found themselves better off than their parents had ever dreamed they could be. For those who had been in the service, the GI Bill and other forms of educational opportunity made a college education something they could all expect. Not that the 1950s were a serene decade. They were years of conformity, of repressive attitudes to sex and family, political intolerance. But they were also, especially for a bright young man like Pat Moynihan, from a middle-class family that had fallen on hard times, a time of hope and unprecedented opportunity.
The only cloud, it seemed at first, lay overseas, in the menacing shape of the Soviet Union and its communist and fellow-traveling allies. In retrospect it is remarkable that in his eloquent inaugural address, President John Kennedy did not so much as mention any domestic problems in American society; he called on Americans to gird themselves for an epic struggle against the dark forces of communism. It was a speech Ronald Reagan might have given. Within three years the national self-perception had changed diametrically. President Kennedy himself had been assassinated. If, more than a third of a century later, no plausible alternative explanation has appeared, and it looks as if his murder was really the random act of a deranged individual, few were content with that interpretation at the time. The assassination, and more specifically Kennedy's replacement by Lyndon Johnson, came'illogically but unmistakably'to symbolize a crisis of authority.
The Cold War intensified. If Kennedy successfully negotiated a satisfactory resolution of the threat posed by the Cuban missile crisis, he plunged the country deeper and deeper into disastrous courses in his handling of Southeast Asia. By 1963 the country was heading toward a great quarrel over the ethics and expediency of intervention in Vietnam.
Perhaps more damaging still, by the middle of the decade the successful crusade for civil rights for black Americans in the South had given way to rioting and bitter racial conflict in the North. All the nation's largest and most important cities, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and Detroit, among others, were loud with riot and anger.
The consensus politics of the 1950s were replaced by a new politics of confrontation. The war not only divided Americans over the ethics of their foreign policy; for many it seemed that the country had abandoned its deepest anticolonial traditions, or exposed itself to humiliation. The racial crisis in the North was shocking, even frightening, for those who had assumed that race prejudice and inequality were residual problems, essentially for the South. All three crises'of authority, over the war and about race'were especially acute for those, like Moynihan from 1966, 1967 and onward, who were involved in teaching college students, and in researching into the sociology and politics of race.
There were many among his contemporaries and peers who allowed their faith in the decency and efficacy of American political institutions to be shaken by this triple barrage. Not Moynihan. His anger was directed, not against 'the System,' but against those who gave up on traditional American beliefs. He was bitterly scornful of what he saw as cowardly or opportunistic liberals. So much so that he never has ceased to denounce what he felt was the hypocritical stance of those who railed against a system that had guaranteed them a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle. For a time he even identified publicly with those, conservatives and neoconservatives, who shared his dislike for what they saw as liberal hypocrisy. But, and this point is absolutely crucial to unraveling the apparently strange meandering of his political course, while he criticized the inconsistencies and failures of liberalism, he never wholeheartedly went over and joined its enemies. Many see him as having sailed on a great circle from classic liberalism, by way of neoconservatism, back to a contemporary version of a traditional Democratic liberal position. Moynihan himself insists that it has not been he who has moved.
True, he did startle his friends and even shocked his wife in 1968 by deciding to work for Richard Nixon. This was not entirely an opportunistic career move; nor was it motivated solely by what he saw as the unfair treatment he had received at the hands of his former liberal allies. He hoped that Nixon would give him the scope to do what the Johnson administration had not allowed him to do, namely to eliminate poverty in America and in so doing to save the American family. More than that, he actually admired Richard Nixon, even though he instinctively distrusted him and many of his lieutenants. When Nixon's loyalists were heading for the penitentiary or out the door, Moynihan, in a quixotic gesture, risked his whole career by volunteering to go back to work for a man by then almost past saving.
Although Moynihan could not quite bring himself to admit it, Nixon had already let him down. Although the president was persuaded to send Moynihan's visionary bid to end poverty, the Family Assistance Plan, to Congress, in the end he was not willing to fight for it. Although he enjoyed Moynihan's company and appreciated the gloss of literary culture and the intellectual weight he lent, Nixon did not seriously attempt to save Moynihan from his opponents within the White House. Even before the first anniversary of his going to work for Nixon in November 1968, Moynihan had been outmaneuvered by the dour stalwarts of Nixon's palace guard.
By the time those same loyalists were being exposed on national television by Senator Sam Ervin's hearings in 1973, Moynihan was out of Washington as the U.S. ambassador to India. Marooned in the heat and dust of New Delhi's political aviary, he had time to reflect on the crumbling of Nixon's and his hopes, and in the end to rescue his fortunes with a knight's move. He was shaken by the disintegration of the American position in the world as a result of Watergate and of the energy crisis, of the imminent loss of the Vietnam War and the cool aggression with which the Soviet Union, under Leonid Brezhnev, was taking every advantage that showed itself on the world chess board. He determined to hazard his career for a new fortune by doing what he could to stiffen America's stance in a hostile world.
Moynihan's move was to write a long article portraying the United States as being 'in opposition,' meaning almost 'in eclipse.'15 He shocked those who saw the United States as the popular hero of the developing world by suggesting that the dominant ideology in the countries emerging from colonialism was neither Soviet communism nor the American version of democracy, but a kind of statist social democracy derived more from the London School of Economics than from either Moscow or Washington. The thesis was in some respects simplistic. It owed something to memories of arguments with Indian students in London twenty years before, something to the irritations of an ambassador isolated in Indira Gandhi's leftish Delhi, but more to the demands of the author's own tricky political situation. It met those demands brilliantly. On the strength of it, and of the way it caught the wind of a new, irritable American attitude toward the outside world, Moynihan found himself on his way, not back to Harvard to teach Government 251 ('Ethnicity in American Politics'), but to confront the massed diplomatic champions of the Third World and their bid, egged on by the Soviet Union, to destroy the legitimacy and ultimately the security of Israel by declaring that Zionism must be equated with racism.
Moynihan's time at the United Nations as U.S. ambassador during the Ford administration was stormy and frenetic. His deep instincts were aroused by the Zionism resolution. He had lived among Jews all his life, of course, and some of the people closest to him, including Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Suzanne Weaver (later Garment) and many others, were Jewish. His lifelong antipathy to communism was at bay too. He felt there was something indecent, in human terms, about the attempt to equate Zionism, the survival instinct of a noble people that had come close to being persecuted out of existence, with racism, the vulgar prejudice that had been, precisely, the cause of the Jewish people's catastrophe.
He also saw more clearly than most people in Washington that there was something threatening in political terms about the campaign behind the resolution. It was a peculiarly crass example of what had been the Soviet strategy since the leadership in Moscow realized, in Khrushchev's time, that frontal assault on the West was futile. The Kremlin's best hope of spreading the influence of communism would be to convert or subvert the Third World. So Moynihan waded into the battle in a strange mood: the berserker warrior, swinging his battle-ax round his head, but at the same time constantly looking suspiciously over his shoulder for fear that someone, probably Henry Kissinger, was out to get him.
Kissinger did get him, in the sense that he was eventually forced out of the United Nations job; but not before he had snatched a kind of victory from defeat on the resolution itself. He had also recouped his political career. In 1976, after a desperately close and bitter primary race against Congresswoman Bella Abzug, he was elected to the Senate. Eleven and a half years after his decision to leave the Johnson administration, and after eight years working for Republican presidents, he was back in Washington, as a Democratic senator from New York.
It is worth noticing just how fast he moved. He was less than a year at Wesleyan. He was at Harvard for two periods of two years, with an added orphan semester. Three years in the White House, with the period of his significant influence on policy over in less than a year. Roughly two years in India. Under one year at the United Nations. It is a record that suggests impatience, dissatisfaction, persistent difficulty in getting on with superiors and the troubled emotions that afflict a man of immense ability and energy who cannot quite find the right task and is afraid that his time will run out before he does; and something of all this was true of his mood from 1965 to 1975. Contrast that tumultuous decade with four terms in the Senate as a figure of growing influence, and'in spite of many frustrations'increasing serenity.
The explanation, it is plain, lies in the way his personal crisis, which was intellectual as well as emotional, tracked and meshed with a crisis in the life of the country and, if it is legitimate to personify a great nation, of its successive moods.
A child of the Depression and the war, rescued from poverty and afforded boundless opportunity by the postwar revolution in educational opportunity, Moynihan grew up sharing the national confidence of the 1950s. Then the national crisis of confidence of the 1960s hit him more painfully than most.
He was identified to some on college campuses as an enemy of the New Left, and so in general he was, though he could show great understanding and insight into what made gifted young people rebel.16 He was targeted as a dissenter from the ideas of the New Left and as 'blaming the victim.' He was a teacher, and university academics were more likely than most to experience student rebellion as a threat to cherished institutions. He was the target of a more or less serious threat to destroy his house in 1969.17 He was an expert on 'urban affairs,' and as such had seen for himself how ill-conceived and ineffective were the fashionable nostrums proposed by liberal social scientists. Once again, therefore, he put his head above the parapet to be shot at by all those who wanted either to defend traditional liberal assumptions or find scapegoats for their failure. After he went to work for Richard Nixon, he inherited, and fully reciprocated, the fierce liberal hatred of Nixon.
In all these respects he experienced in exaggerated form what the country as a whole was experiencing. Moynihan and his friends felt an active commitment to the proposition that American society, contrary to what the radicals were proclaiming, was for all its faults fundamentally healthy. It was for him, therefore, a duty to try to correct error, denounce what he saw as lying and persuade doubters of the underlying strength and decency of America.
When he first arrived in the Senate, there was a danger that he would become the captive of a small group of neoconservative intellectuals, on his staff and off. To some extent he had been taken up by this group after the collapse of Senator Henry 'Scoop' Jackson's unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1976. Some of these people dreamed of replacing Jackson with Moynihan as the Democratic presidential nominee, seeing him as a centrist who could rescue the party from liberal heresies in domestic politics and soft-boiled attitudes in foreign policy alike. As any successful first-term senator does, Moynihan flirted briefly with the idea of a presidential campaign, but only in his own mind and in guarded conversation with a few friends. Certainly there was no 'overt act,' no political initiative, to launch a presidential bid.
By 1981, therefore, all unawares, Ronald Reagan had done Moynihan two big favors. He had cured him of any lingering temptation to run for president; after the shooting attempt on Reagan's life in March 1981 it was plain that any attempt to unseat him would be futility itself. And he had reconfirmed the senator in his lifelong loyalty to the Democratic party. (He was, he once said, 'baptized a Catholic and born a Democrat.') The similarities between Moynihan and Reagan, though superficial, are intriguing. Both had family backgrounds in the Middle West (Reagan in Illinois, Moynihan in Indiana), though Moynihan was taken to New York as a child and soon ceased even to spend family vacations in Indiana. Both had fathers who were Irish Democrats and alcoholics. Both started out as active New Deal liberals; indeed both were on the board of Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal high command. Both were shocked by the political revival of the Left in the 1960s, and by the cultural upheaval that accompanied and ultimately buried it. Both were especially angry with student radicalism.
But there the similarities end. Beginning when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, but at an accelerating pace after he went to work for General Electric, Reagan soon became an icon of the new conservatism that had emerged from the debacle of Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign for the White House. Moynihan worked for Richard Nixon in the White House. But he never missed an opportunity to make it plain that he was not one of the president's men, that he remained a Democrat, and an opponent of the Vietnam War.18 As a lifelong anticommunist, Moynihan had no difficulty in representing first Nixon, then Gerald Ford, as ambassador, first in New Delhi, then at the United Nations.
He campaigned for the Democratic nomination in New York with the welcome help of conservative Democrats, and as an avowed opponent of the brand of New York liberalism embodied by Bella Abzug. But that was as far to the Right as he would go. Once arrived on Capitol Hill, he understood that his first duty was to New York State. His political interest lay in getting the utmost for his constituents from the only source capable of delivering resources on the requisite scale: the federal government. He quickly saw through the Reagan administration's strategic plans for destroying the American welfare state by running up a deficit so huge that only deep cuts in social expenditure could prevent federal bankruptcy. At the same time he also saw that the Reagan administration's serious foreign policy, which involved challenging and at the same time negotiating with the Soviet Union, was being put at risk by ignorant wild men who were out of control. Moynihan took the behavior of the CIA in Central America and the way in which its agents tried to conceal what they were doing from the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which he was vice chairman, as a personal insult. And he came to see the attempt to circumvent the will of Congress in the Iran-contra affair as little short of a coup d'état against constitutional government.
Long before Reagan left the White House in 1988, in short, Moynihan had returned to the political allegiance of his youth, if he had ever left it. In the process he had become one of the most reliable, as well as one of the most eloquent, opponents of the Reagan administration and the conservative Republicans in Congress. As an increasingly influential member, and briefly as chairman, of the Senate Finance Committee, he concerned himself with many aspects of public finance. His special interests were'as his past experience would have predicted'in taxation, social security, welfare and education. He tried, and failed, to put together a health reform package that could attract broad bipartisan support, then managed to extricate from the ruins of the Clinton health care project massive resources for health care research, which is after all one of New York's major industries. As a ranking member, and for a time chairman, of the Environment and Public Works Committee, he left behind an impressive record. He helped to craft, and to steer through Congress, a massively ambitious transportation bill that reversed more than a generation of discrimination in favor of highways and against mass transit.
For all the high praise lavished on Moynihan when he announced that he would leave the Senate, however, the Washington insiders' view of his performance there was less flattering. It was conceded that he was an ornament, 'the kind of person,' one friend-turned-opponent says,19 'the Founding Fathers would have wanted in the Senate: urbane, witty, scholarly, wise, eloquent. But what will he leave behind?'
Two knowledgeable and influential groups of people, in particular, take a poor view of Moynihan's performance as a legislator: the neoconservative intellectuals, and some of his fellow senators and, especially, their staffs. Irving Kristol, his old comrade-in-arms at The Public Interest and even before that his editor on The Reporter, speaks for the neoconservatives generally. To Kristol, Moynihan is 'a highly intelligent man' and a 'significant' but not an 'important' man. (He didn't elaborate on the distinction.)20
It is revealing, Kristol went on, that there is no 'Moynihan bill' that he will be known by. There could have been. Fellowship or scholarship funds, something like the Fulbright scholarships. The reason, according to Kristol, is that Moynihan is not interested in legislation. He likes to use the Senate as a place to influence debate. He is a 'pussycat,' says Kristol. He has always avoided hard issues because he doesn't want people to dislike him.
Kristol is right that there are many, both senators and especially their staff, who do not hold an extravagantly high view of Moynihan's qualities. Some talk about the difficulty he has had in getting and especially in keeping good staff. 'Treats them like shit,' one man who has dealt with Moynihan in the Clinton White House said bluntly. 'In the general scheme of things,' a veteran journalist observer of Congress told me, 'I think he is a great man. But he can be vindictive. He is a pedant, and that annoys many of his colleagues. He enunciates the exact word with every sign of great inner satisfaction. That antagonizes his colleagues. He is not hail-fellow-well-met. There is an emotional moat around him. He can be obsequious, but he is not approachable.'21
Others are even more critical, even contemptuous. Politics is a rough game, and some of them have gone against Moynihan and lost. One man who held 'the Moynihan portfolio' in the Clinton White House professes to admire Moynihan's intelligence and the range of ideas he can address. But he calls him 'a gadfly.' He has led a charmed life with the press, this man told me. 'The reporters go light on his ineffectiveness as a legislator.' In fact, he said, Moynihan has 'an inability to act as a legislator at all. It is not in his character to make the friendships, to write the chits.' This judgment, of course, proceeds from a certain preconception of what it is that a legislator does.
A former Moynihan staffer, however, who has gone on to a career of considerable influence in Washington, acknowledges some of these criticisms. 'He thinks anecdotally,' he said. 'He thinks in narrative. He cares a lot about what intellectuals think of him. He is an intellectual himself, but he is not an academic. He doesn't think with the precision of a first-rate academic.' This same witness flatly denies criticisms of the way Moynihan treats his staff, saying that on the contrary he may push his staff hard, but he backs them up, even when they make mistakes.
'I'm not one of those who thinks he was an ineffective legislator,' says former Republican Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Bob Packwood of Oregon. 'And boy! Was he looking out for the interests of New York!'22 And former Majority Leader Bob Dole says, 'Pat was always perceived as the intellectual of the Senate, but he was obviously effective in a different way. At the committee level he was very protective of the interests of New York. He was known for his candor and fairness. But Pat can count. He always understood where the votes were.' But he wasn't a conventional legislative craftsman? I asked. 'No, but he was a big-picture craftsman.'23
'He is the most successful intellectual in electoral politics,' said Rob Shapiro, who worked for Moynihan from 1981 to 1986.24 'He is often lampooned as a figure out of the Victorian Raj. But he has a great intuitive grasp of popular politics. He always manages to position himself as a critic of the conventional wisdom. He sees what other people don't see. But his great political art is to point it out. The liberals saw him as a deserter in a period of liberal politics, then the conservatives saw him as a deserter in a period of conservative politics.' He is not interested in power, Shapiro judges, he is more interested in reputation. 'That's why the appeal of the Senate has been so great. He likes the sense of personal dignity, the way it allows him to be a gentleman.'
Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a prophet, in the Greek or Old Testament meaning of the word. Not just in the sense that he can foretell the future, though on a rather impressive range of issues, from the welfare crisis in the inner cities, to the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, to the danger of ethnic conflict in the Balkans, he has shown an almost uncanny flair for seeing the importance of questions that had not yet come up on other people's screens.
The Greek word prophetes, from which we derive our word prophet, means one who speaks out. Moynihan speaks out. He dares to think for himself, and to say what he thinks, even if it hurts himself or others. He has done it up and down the East Coast, from New York to Washington and Cambridge and back to New York and Washington again, these nearly fifty years. He is in reality the modern equivalent of a prophet, which is to say that he is at heart a journalist.
If he had not been a professor or a politician, I like to think that he would have been the greatest columnist of his day. His greatest gift is to handicap the intellectual horses. He picks up tips about their form, decides which ones will run and run and sticks his intellectual and political wad on the ones he thinks will be winners. There have been some slow coaches and some fallers. But the record of his form book is truly imposing.
At the same time there has been a core of principle and consistency. Moynihan, one of his staff told me, has his 'permanent agenda.' At the heart of it is a double credo. Charles de Gaulle began his great war memoirs by saying that, from the start, he had a certain idea of France, and that France would not be France unless it was great.25 Pat Moynihan has always set before himself an image of the United States that would deserve its own greatness through magnanimity to its own citizens and to the world. Second, he has always understood that, however important private enterprise and voluntary associations might be 'churches, universities, political parties' greatness could not be achieved by the uncoordinated actions of individual citizens alone, still less as a by-product of maximizing the shareholder value of corporations.
Moynihan is not primarily a liberal, still less a conservative. His friend John Kenneth Galbraith says, 'You will never understand Pat in terms of commitment to Left or Right. He has a mind wholly free from ideological commitments. His long-term commitment is to cities, to the poor and especially to poor children.' Some would say he is a Progressive. But these adjectives are only labels. What even his fiercest critics would agree with is that Moynihan has been as prolific of political ideas as any practicing politician of his generation.
This book will be a parade of those ideas and their evolution. But first we will have to turn over the soil of experience in which they grew, in a clouded childhood, a youth of gradually opening opportunity in and out of the city of New York, and formative years in London.
Meet the Author
Godfrey Hodgson has written several books on American politics and history, including AMERICA IN OUR TIME and, most recently, THE WORLD TURNED RIGHT SIDE UP: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN CONSERVATISM. He is currently the director of the Reuters Foundation Programme at Oxford University. The author resides in England.
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