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Daniel Patrick Moynihan, R.I.P.

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 31, 2003

Daniel Patrick MoynihanPolitics is seldom thought of as an intellectual pursuit. More often, wags describe it as show business for ugly people. Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) was a rarity: a true intellectual and policy wonk (as opposed to policy wonk poseur) who succeeded in the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics, in New York of all places.

Tributes to most deceased political figures almost write themselves. The typical public officeholder dedicated their career to one or two major issues, or was associated with one or two major accomplishments. Moynihan isn't easily classified or described. In researching this article, I found that obituaries were not even always in agreement about basic biographical facts. Was he raised in Manhattan's "Hell's Kitchen" or wasn't he? Was he 10 when his father his deserted their family or was he six? Was he a "liberal stalwart" or someone whose views were outside the conventional left-right spectrum?

Early life took Moynihan from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Indiana to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After his heavy drinking father walked out on them, Moynihan began earning money as a shoeshine boy while his mother supported the family by running a saloon near Times Square. He graduated first in his class at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, but could not yet afford higher education. He went to work on the docks and eventually was able to begin attending City College. After joining the U.S. Navy in 1944, he was able to attend Tufts on the G.I. Bill. He won a Fulbright scholarship to attend the London School of Economics. Soon after he began his career of juggling politics and academia, teaching at Harvard and Syracuse while advising a series of political leaders beginning with Averell Harriman in 1955.

At the center of Pat Moynihan's storied career was a remarkable paradox: As a scholar and advisor to every president from Kennedy to Ford, he was an innovative thinker who was frequently dubious about the claims and excesses of modern liberalism. As a participant in electoral politics, particularly during his four Senate terms, he was a conventional liberal who seldom deviated from the Democratic party line.

When effective conservative opposition to the left was still in its infancy, Moynihan was busily and often controversially pointing out the flaws in liberal thought. Yet when these policies came under serious challenge first from President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and then a Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, he hugged what was left of the New Deal consensus tightly and was an obstacle to reform. He was first elected to the Senate in 1976 by defeating movement conservative James Buckley, brother of William F., in the general election. And one of the final acts of his Senate career was his famous "torch-passing" press conference with Hillary Clinton that was probably more responsible than any other single factor for her being a senator from New York today. Obituaries alternate between describing him as a neoconservative and an unrepentant New Deal liberal, but all recognize him as a leading Democrat.

A couple years ago, the writer Steve Sailer remarked that "true neoconservative politicians are practically nonexistent - as opposed to the Joe Liebermans and Daniel Patrick Moynihans who talk like Irving Kristol but vote like Walter Mondale." But unlike most other senators, Moynihan's ideas far outweigh the significance of his voting record.

It was Moynihan, in a book entitled Beyond the Melting Pot coauthored with Nathan Glazer, who pointed out the difficulties of assimilating immigrant groups– two years before the 1965 immigration reform act that increased immigration without any corresponding effort to increase our capacity for assimilation.

When the conventional wisdom was that welfare dependency was wholly determined by unemployment rates and economic conditions, Moynihan's 1965 report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" pointed out the role played by family breakdown. As a member of Lyndon Johnson's administration at the outset of the Great Society/War on Poverty, he presciently wrote about the collapse of the urban black family as something then approaching "crisis level." Then the black illegitimacy rate was 26 percent; today it stands at 33 percent among all Americans and 69 percent among black Americans. We are now acutely aware of illegitimacy's relationship with crime, welfare dependency, drug abuse, educational failure and a whole host of other pathologies and only beginning to reverse the tide.

Moynihan, right, converses with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, during a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in this September 5, 1975 photo
Moynihan, right, converses with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, during a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in this September 5, 1975 photo

As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1970s, Moynihan forthrightly took on a collection of totalitarian and radical Third World basket cases and articulately defended American interests. He confronted the Soviets, denounced Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as a "racist murderer," and described an anti-Israel resolution equating Zionism with racism as "obscene." He forthrightly criticized career diplomats for "an incapacity for dealing with ideas" that led them to use their protocols as "a substitute for ideas." In 1980, by then a senator, he would predict the end of the Soviet Union (the only other politician to do so was Reagan).

In 1993, Moynihan penned "Defining Deviancy Down" for The American Scholar. Its premise was that a decline in standards and the will to punish lesser criminal offenses promoted lawlessness and social pathology. The failure of a society to enforce its most basic legal and moral rules leads it to live in denial about the criminal and deviant behavior that ensues, encouraging still more of the same. Many of its observations were incorporated into the successful crime-reduction strategies implemented in parts of the United States later in the decade, most famously Rudolph Giuliani's New York City.

Although he was then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Moynihan refused to be bullied into uncompromising support of Bill Clinton's health care plan. He sought to inject contrary views into the debate and chided Clinton that while we did not truly have a health care crisis, the country was facing a welfare crisis. This helped America avert Hillarycare and also moved the welfare reform debate forward, although Moynihan disappointingly opposed the landmark 1996 reform legislation in Kennedy-like terms.

Thus, even as a mainstream Democratic senator Moynihan was occasionally a source of common sense. In voting to ban partial-birth abortion, he pointed out that the procedure was actually closer to infanticide and provided pro-life forces with one of their most memorable quotes. Despite his liberal record on Social Security, he was willing to contemplate free-market reforms. After leaving the Senate, he co-chaired President George W. Bush's commission on Social Security reform and was a supporter allowing Americans to invest a portion of their payroll taxes, a policy frequently described as partial privatization.

But Moynihan was seldom more on target than with his appraisals of his fellow liberals. The left, he stated, had developed "the ability to immediately dissolve every statement of fact into a question of motive." He pointed out, "Liberalism faltered when it turned out it could not cope with truth." His rebuke to messianic Great Society liberals - we thought we could do anything. . . The central psychological proposition of liberalism is that for every problem there is a solution" – is especially relevant amid signs that optimistic conservatives may be repeating the mistake of excessive faith in a set of prescribed policy positions.

Such keen insights will last longer than a series of wrongheaded Senate votes and a mostly unsuccessful fight to preserve New Deal liberalism. Pat Moynihan will be missed because of his service but also because of what he represented. As the columnist George Will observed, "Along the way he wrote more books than some of his colleagues read, and became something that, like Atlantis, is rumored to have once existed but has not recently been seen - the Democratic Party's mind."

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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