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A Born Controversialist

Charles Horner

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927- 2003) acquired an enduring Anglophilia as a student in Britain in the early 1950s, and it carried over into his life in public office. One of his first hires when he entered the Senate in 1977 was the equivalent of a parliamentary private secretarya “dogsbody,” in British parlancewhose task was to scour the press every day and then draft notes to anyone and everyone who might appropriately receive a comment or observation from a newly installed U.S senator who hoped to remain one for a long time.

The first incumbent, when I was also an assistant to Moynihan, was Ted A. Blanton, a brilliant young North Carolinian and a recent graduate of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, where he had been research assistant to the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Every day, by late morning he had composed a sheaf of notes piled high enough almost to hide his face as he cradled them in both arms and deposited them on the boss’s desk for review. These were casual notes, sometimes only a sentence or two, but Moynihan scrutinized every one of them before it was sent out. Each word, each punctuation mark mattered, for it was all supposed to appear effortless, in the Oxbridge traditionas if it had been tossed off in a moment, with hardly a thought.

This combination of meticulous care, wily tactics and studied insouciance was not confined to daily note-sending, of course. It was the method that Moynihan followed in all aspects of his public life. He put extraordinary energy into overwhelming the world, often straining to make it embrace the persona he had created for himself. And he succeeded. In a country with an ever-contracting attention span, Moynihan sustained a prominent public career for 40 years.

Outside of government, Moynihan was a Harvard professor, a controversialist and the embodiment of the public intellectual. Inside, he practiced two distinct specialtieshigh-level executive-branch politics, with its bureaucratic rivalries and court intrigue, and New York electoral politics, with its sharp elbows and raucous unpredictability. Beginning in 1976, New Yorkers sent Moynihan to the Senate four times.

Across the years, Moynihan generated a mountain of wordsincluding books, journal articles and magazine pieces (e.g., the famous 1993 “Defining Deviancy Down”). The Moynihan family asked Steven R. Weisman, a friend and a former New York Times reporter, to make a selection from Moynihan’s thousands of letters, as well as from his occasional memorandums and journal entries. The result is “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary.” Mr. Weisman has worked very hardcommendably soto fashion his portrait, giving us first-person glimpses of one of the most combative, intellectually engaged and restless public figures of our time.

The book begins with Moynihan’s 1951 job application to the International Labor office in Geneva and ends with a 2002 note to Ted Kennedy thanking him for his note about a speech Moynihan gave at Harvard. By then the reader has long since come to recognize the formulaic flattery. “You cheer me beyond words. I watch you all with wonder and admiration.” In between, we see Moynihan taking up a vast range of topics and addressing an impressively varied cast of characters.

He complains to Brooks Brothers about the downward trend in its hosiery: “I bought one dozen socks, one of which I enclose. All of them developed holes within a month.” He apologizes to Henry Kissinger for something he said in a Playboy interview. He gives Vice President Walter Mondale a thumbnail history of the Vikings, explaining that, “as a descendent of a race of scholars much victimized by these folk,” he had reason to learn their history with “precision.” He writes to Hillary Clinton about an academic paper he has read, titled “On the Economics of Musical Composition in Mozart’s Vienna.” In a journal entry from October 1973 he paraphrases a recent speech by Norman Podhoretz, who had argued that “the main political values of the American intellectual community are anti democratic or non democratic.” Moynihan adds emphatically: “I think he is right.”

Moynihan would later be grouped with Mr. Podhoretz and other so-called neoconservatives, but he was never happy about the label. Mr. Weisman, in one of his helpful headnotes, says that Moynihan sent a “continuing series of complaints” to the New York Times whenever the term was applied to him. In a 1981 letter to the Times’s publisher, Punch Sulzberger, he writes: “Inasmuch as a neoconservative is a liberal who votes for the defense budget, it is possible to clarify the whole matter for your readers by describing such persons as patriots.” He asks to be referred to as “Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a well known patriot.”

These exchanges highlight the protean nature of Moynihan’s political identity. His name first became widely known in the late 1960s, when he wrote a controversial report on the dysfunction of the black family. In many ways he remained a skeptical social scientist over the years, ready to doubt the utopian claims of government programs. He was less than enthusiastic about President Clinton’s health-care reform effort in the early 1990s. In a 1993 letter to Meg Greenfield, at the Washington Post, he worries that the White House will “take us over the cliff on health care. Thinking, that is, that they can cut back [on costs] or at least hold [them] down.” In a memorandum on a conversation he had with Mr. Clinton on the matter he writes: “I said why didn’t he start something on welfare as well?” But when Mr. Clinton finally took up welfare reform a couple of years later, Moynihanin his typical maverick wayopposed the bill.

There is a kind of melancholy to many of the letters, a sense that much which surrounds him is failing. Moynihan was a reader of Yeats, and he had a poetic appreciation that, even as he ascended, things around him were falling apart. Of the four presidents he served, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were hounded out of office; Gerald Ford lost his election; and John Kennedy was murdered. Moynihan delights in having bested his rivals for a New York seat in the Senate, but he knows when he arrives in Washington in 1977 that the Empire State is a shell of its once heroic self. It is a mendicant and Moynihan a beggar on its behalf: Job-one is the 1977 billion-dollar bailout of New York City.

When Moynihan entered the Senate in 1977, Democrats were bitterly divided over foreign policy. From mid-1977 until the end of 1979, I was his assistant for foreign affairs. My presence came from an alliance between Moynihan and Sen. “Scoop” Jackson (1912-83), for whom I had worked. Jackson was a Democratic internationalist in the tradition of Harry Truman and Dean Acheson. The seemingly improbable connection between the “stolid” Jackson and the “flamboyant” Moynihan began in 1975, thanks to Moynihan’s outspoken defense of the Free World as Ford’s representative at the United Nationsespecially his forceful denunciation of the notorious resolution equating Zionism and racism.

During the Carter administration, Moynihan and Jackson were closely allied against what they saw as Mr. Carter’s weak and just plain naïve foreign policy. By 1980 most of the “Jackson Democrats” were ready to embrace Ronald Reagan, but not Moynihan. After Reagan’s inauguration, his interests began to shift.

In 1969, Moynihan wrote to President Nixon about the anti-Americanism that had infected the nation’s elite and how it would, over time, limit America’s place in the world. Though Moynihan himself was an ebullient lover of America, he too, later, worked to limit our international role. In 1991 he went so far as to vote against the Gulf War despite the U.N.-backed international coalition that George H.W. Bushwhom Moynihan had known and respected for yearshad painstakingly assembled. In the run-up to the vote, Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell had asked Moynihan to prepare a memorandum about alternatives to war. Moynihan sent a seven-page response with an antic final sentence: “I propose that Kuwait be liberated by the United Nations and donated to UNICEF.”

Moynihan was gladdened by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the pleasure soon gave way to a dozen years of self-inflicted pain. He felt that there was inadequate public recognition of the fact that he, alone, had predicted the Soviet Union’s unraveling.

These days Moynihan is invoked almost always as an anachronisma senator who was educated, literate and civic-minded: an “American visionary,” as the book’s subtitle has it, whose like we may never see again. Still, Moynihan, who praised himself for seeing the demise of the Soviet Union, did not reliably see the future perils closer to home. For all his criticism of the American welfare state, for example, he could not imagine its current travailthe vast apparatus of entitlement programs that are now hopelessly in debt and themselves threatening to collapse. Though Moynihan never fashioned an enduring political base from which he could affect social policy in the big ways he wanted, he was rightly proud of a conspicuous public project he championedthe redevelopment of Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.

A reader of Mr. Weisman’s “portrait in letters” may find himself, by the end, worn down by Moynihan’s charm and more than willing to yield to his vigor, exuberance and wit. And yet, in his private jottings, Moynihan was not self-seductive. He knew who he was and, when speaking to himself, did not claim for himself more than was warranted.

One journal entry tells us that he turned down a job at the University of Chicago lest Saul Bellow and the sociologist Edward Shilsboth of whom taught therediscover that he was not as smart as they thought he was. And though he often said that he was the only man ever to serve in the cabinet or sub-cabinet of four consecutive presidents, he never sought the office himself.

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