Friday, October 15, 2010 Book Club: Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait In Letters Of An American Visionary

Last week saw the release of a trove of letters spanning the career of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Moynihan had arguably one of the most interesting and broad careers of any modern politician.  Assistant to four presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford), ambassador (India and United Nations), and four term Senator, Moynihan's peripatetic life of politician/public intellectual is virtually inconceivable now.  Though clearly a liberal (he called himself a Kennedy Liberal), Moynihan was known for--and often criticized by the left for--his contrarian-ness.  Just as much a critic of liberalism as a champion of it, Moynihan's intellect, curiosity, and skepticism made him more of a thinker than a true legislator.  Thus, while he did not produce a policy legacy akin to that of contemporaries like Ted Kennedy or Bob Dole, he added something distinctive to the Senate, something that I would argue is sorely lacking today.

 Moynihan's greatest impact, probably, came in the realm of urban and social policy during the 1960s.  Some of this work has contributed to how we look at electoral politics.  Specifically, Moynihan, along with his longtime collaborator Nathan Glazer, were pioneers in the study of ethnicity.  Their seminal work, "Beyond the Melting Pot", explores how different groups--the Irish, Italians, Jews, etc.--competed for and rose to power in New York.  Not simply a study of voting and party formation, "Beyond the Melting Pot" is a larger sociology of these groups with a focus on how they assimilated (or have yet to assimilate) into the broader culture.  It was Moynihan's attempt to explain the plight of the African American community at the time that is one of the most oft cited aspects of his work, even now several years after his passing.  While serving in the Johnson Administration, he authored what has come to be known as the "Moynihan Report."  "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" was an attempt to frame how the government should proceed with social policy aimed at impoverished African Americans.  Focusing on the historical factors that, he believed, led to a decline in the stability of black families, Moynihan's analysis can be read as a warning shot to liberal policymakers who believe that the right program can solve complicated, entrenched, and long standing problems.  In the aftermath of the study's release, Moynihan was vilified by many on the left for, at best, "blaming the victim" or being a high brow racist.  A reading of the report (which many of its critics failed to do) doesn't really bear these critiques out.  What it shows, however, is how social science and politics oftentimes create a very explosive mixture.  Given the social upheaval of the period and the hegemonic Great Society liberalism of the Johnson years, Moynihan's willingness to raise tough questions from inside the tent left him scarred for quite a long time, if not the remainder of his life.

Having been stung by the reaction to the Moynihan Report, especially from so many of his friends and colleagues on the left, Moynihan spent much of the late 60's and early 70's further engaged in critiques of liberal shibboleths.  The fact that he did this from within Republican administrations makes his career all the more fascinating.  How one reads this part of his career--was he trying to fight the good fight for liberalism within the enemy camp or was he increasingly a traitor to his roots?--depends, I suppose, on one's willingness to give Moynihan the benefit of the doubt.  He would have perhaps said that he did not so much leave the Democratic Party as much as it left him.  In the field of social policy, it is quite clear that the policies Nixon supported--i.e. a guaranteed income--not only had Moynihan's fingerprints on them but would be inconceivable in a Republican administration today. 

After his ambassadorial stints, Moynihan sought the Democratic Senate nomination in New York in 1976.  In a heavily contested primary, Moynihan won by about 7,000 votes over his top challenger, Representative Bella Abzug--she of the fiery personality and big hats.  The race also featured former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and NYC Council President Paul O'Dwyer.  As an aside, I should probably devote an entire post to Abzug at some point.  She features prominently in another fascinating Democratic primary of the era, the 1977 NYC mayoral contest that also featured Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch.  For a great primer on that race, check out Jonathan Mahler's "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning."  Anyhow, in the general election Moynihan went on to defeat Republican incumbent James Buckley (brother of William F., himself a frequent debating foil of Moynihan).  Once ensconced in the Senate, Moynihan was never seriously challenged for re-election.  He won 65% and 67% in 1982 and 1988 respectively.  In the Republican landslide of 1994 that saw his co-Empire State Democrat Mario Cuomo dispatched from the Governor's mansion, Moynihan won quite easily with 55%. 

As I mentioned above, Moynihan's legislative record doesn't seem to square with his ambitions.  This retrospective on his career, published on the eve of his retirement in 2000, explores some of the reasons.  I like to think that some of his failures can be attributed to his training as a social scientist.  As one myself, I know that we're often better at pointing out what's wrong with a proposition than what's right with it.  Every graduate student gets quite proficient at deconstructing, critiquing, and picking apart someone else's work.  Thus, someone like Moynihan could quite easily look at a state of affairs--say persistent urban poverty--and quickly ascertain what has gone wrong in the past, what will probably go wrong in the future, and conclude that attempting to change it is futile (especially if the proposed change is sweeping).  To many, this would make Moynihan a "conservative."  The fact that he spent much of his time in the liberal wilderness kibitzing with the likes of Irving Kristol and other "neo-conservatives" perhaps gives some credence to this.  That aside, this temperament also makes legislating difficult.  To successfully push policy through the Senate one needs to be willing to both suspend belief about the shortcomings of one's ideas (what won't work) and also find ways to get others on board.  In short, you need to be an optimist, a salesman, and a trader.  Thus, Moynihan seemed destined to be the "brain" or the Senate without exercising much of the "brawn."

Having said that, one shouldn't conclude that Moynihan was a failed or unsuccessful Senator.  There is a tremendous value in having someone who can provide the institution and other senators with what we might call "context."  While Moynihan may have struck people as pedantic and somewhat windy, one can't deny that he brought to the debate a tremendous amount of substance.  There should be a place for people like this in politics.  That Moynihan was able to be both professorial and a tremendous vote getter is quite remarkable.  In reflecting on his career and now diving into his until now unpublished correspondence, I can't help but lament the fact that he seems like a relic of a bygone era.  Despite the fact that he's been out of office only a decade, the current political environment seems to have regressed to a point that a Daniel Patrick Moynihan would be un-electable.  Our politics is worse off for that.  Can you imagine

For some more on Moynihan, check out these interviews:

CSPAN "Life and Career of Daniel Patrick Moynihan" from 1987
Charlie Rose from 1998
Charlie Rose from 1996
Charlie Rose following Moynihan's death

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