Commentary Magazine

The Moynihan Years

Appropriately enough, the event that marked the beginning of the end of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s political career was a thoroughly ambiguous occasion. The date was July 8, 1999, the setting the Moynihan country home at Pindars Corners in upstate New York. The previous November, the senior Senator from New York had announced he would not run for a fifth term in 2000, and now Hillary Rodham Clinton had prevailed on Pat and Elizabeth Moynihan to let her use their farm to inaugurate the “listening tour” of the state that would eventuate, observers were already reasonably sure, in her own candidacy.

As a laying-on of hands, the event was at once predictable and peculiar: predictable in that Moynihan, a loyal if idiosyncratic party man, should have put his considerable popularity at the service of his putative successor, peculiar in that he and the woman he was so warmly endorsing had so edgy a relationship. For Moynihan had been, at best, openly skeptical of the health-care legislation that was the First Lady’s particular project and the centerpiece of Bill Clinton’s first-term program, and the Senator’s recalcitrance had been not least among the factors that eventually scuttled the proposal. In the intervening years, relations between Moynihan and the administration had never been warm, and there was a good deal of sniping back and forth.

Beyond that, according to a new biography of Moynihan by Godfrey Hodgson,1 social relations between the Clintons and the Moynihans were always less than intimate, with particular friction between the wives. On the eve of “the great Pindars Corners love-in,” Hodgson reports, the Moynihans, annoyed with logistical demands from the Clinton entourage, had even threatened to call the whole thing off. But in the end, not uncharacteristically, Moynihan saw the political logic of the situation and acted accordingly.



Moynihan’s has been, indeed, a curious career. Now seventy-three, he can look back on a lifetime of impressive success both as an intellectual—a raft of notable books and articles, a professorship at Harvard—and as a politician—a near quarter-century in the United States Senate, with four victorious campaigns in which his winning margins ranged between comfortable and overwhelming. Yet peers in both fields have given him mixed praise. No one has ever denied his intelligence, even brilliance, but a number of his academic colleagues have questioned the depth and rigor of his scholarship; and, for all his popularity with the voters of New York State, a number of senatorial colleagues will volunteer off the record that his roster of legislative accomplishments is slight and his judgment eccentric. (To the question of whether Moynihan is brilliant or a crackpot, Hodgson reports the response of an anonymous Clinton staffer: “I have to choose?”)

Nothing in Moynihan’s career is more controversial than the erratic path he has followed ideologically. He broke into New York politics in 1954 as a campaign worker and, later, administrative aide to Averell Harriman, who served a single term as governor before losing to a Republican, Nelson Rockefeller, in 1958. The New York Democrats were then torn between the “bosses”—machine regulars—and the “reformers”—liberal purists eager to preserve and extend the legacy of the New Deal. Intellectually, Moynihan was with the reformers, but he was put off by the class bias he saw in their disdainful attitude toward the predominantly Irish-and Italian-Catholic bosses.2

It is thus not altogether surprising that, from the mid-60’s to the mid-70’s, Moynihan grew progressively disenchanted with the liberal Left and found himself most comfortable in the company of similarly disillusioned leftists who came to be known as neoconservatives (though at the time the great majority of them resisted the label). His narrow defeat of Bella Abzug in the Democratic primary for the Senate in 1976 was widely understood as a victory for party moderates and neocons over the liberal-left wing of the party. Yet not very long after winning the general election, and especially after Ronald Reagan’s accession to the presidency in 1980, Moynihan drifted back, with an occasional gesture toward heresy, into the liberal mainstream of his party—a party that had made it increasingly clear that neocons were not welcome—and became a sad, sometimes bitter, disappointment to those who had at the outset most enthusiastically supported him. The candidate of the neoconservatives wound up a neoconventional Democrat.

All this makes for a fascinating and complicated tale, about which I will have more to say later on, and it is unfortunate that it has not found a better storyteller. Hodgson, a longtime British observer of American politics and a close friend of the Moynihans since the early 60’s, is an unabashed fan of the Senator. “[T]here is,” he tells us, “no one in political life in the United States, or anywhere else, whom on balance I admire more.” There is of course nothing wrong with a biographer who thinks highly of his subject; nor is Hodgson incapable of (generally very mild) criticism of Moynihan. The problem is that, in consistently making the best case for him, Hodgson proceeds from his own political perspective, which is very much that of a traditional liberal. Insofar as he attributes the same perspective to Moynihan, this leads him frequently into tortured and slightly off-center analysis, and sometimes into downright silliness.

Consider, as just one example, the concluding sentences of the book, in which Hodgson writes that Moynihan will likely most be remembered

as the man who—in the face of a generation that thought it had abolished the need for government—had the lucidity and the courage to restate the enduring propositions of the American political creed. That tradition holds many things, but above all a faith in the redemptive power of republican government.

This peroration is not merely hyperbolic, banal, and empty, it is simply wrong. Americans have always been unique in the West precisely for their mistrust of government, and even Moynihan, whose complex liberalism includes a belief, for certain purposes and on certain occasions, in activist government, would surely look askance at talk of its “redemptive power.”

The book is a disappointment on other grounds as well. Its great strength is the access the author enjoyed to Moynihan and his family, to his public and private papers, and to dozens of friends and associates over the years. The Gentleman from New York is widely, if not deeply, researched, and it contains a wealth of fascinating information—even if, concerning a number of critical turning points, Moynihan was apparently not as forthcoming as might have been hoped. But the information is not often put to good use, and the coverage of Moynihan’s career, the Senate years in particular, is frequently thin. Moreover, the book is awkwardly and confusingly organized and lazily written. It is marred by indeterminate chronology, anecdotes whose point or relevance is unclear, and narrative passages where the reader cannot quite be certain what is going on.

Still, it is what we have, and interested readers can use its mine of information to attempt to make sense for themselves of one of the most dazzling, frustrating, and enigmatic political figures of the past half-century.



The facts of Pat Moynihan’s extraordinarily public and often very noisy life are better known than those of virtually any other contemporary politician who has not been nominated for President. His career began in obscurity, though not so great an obscurity as is sometimes supposed. Moynihan was not, contrary to legend, born or raised in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, and his childhood was not, for the most part, poverty-stricken. The central fact of his early life was not deprivation but instability. His father, a heavy drinker, walked out permanently when Moynihan was ten, and both before and after that the family was constantly on the move, its economic situation fluctuating frequently and unpredictably. No less chaotic was his educational experience: he attended a variety of grade schools, two high schools, and three colleges (CCNY, Middlebury, and Tufts). It is, indeed, easy to suppose that the psychological origins of Moynihan’s later preoccupation with the fragility and instability of the political order lay in the unsettled and uncertain conditions of his upbringing.

Following graduation from college in 1948 and two years of graduate study at the Fletcher School at Tufts (where he eventually earned his Ph.D. in international relations), Moynihan spent three years in England studying—with, according to Hodgson, something less than intense rigor—at the London School of Economics. The career he launched on his return to the U.S. in 1953 alternated fitfully between politics and academia. After his four years with Governor Harriman, his pre-Senate experience consisted of teaching stints at Syracuse, Wesleyan, and Harvard interrupted by service in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-65), a failed race for New York City Council president in 1965, two years (1969-70) in the Nixon White House, two years as U.S. ambassador to India (1973-74), and eight months as Gerald Ford’s ambassador to the United Nations (1975-76). Moynihan loved the world of ideas—he regularly insisted that nothing meant more to him than being a Harvard professor—but the ease with which he was so often lured away from Cambridge demonstrates an at least equal love for the political spotlight and political power.

Everywhere Moynihan went, controversy followed. His first—and perhaps most spectacular—experience of notoriety arose over the paper he wrote for President Lyndon B. Johnson in early 1965 while serving in the normally obscure position of Assistant Secretary of Labor. The essay, later known as the Moynihan Report, was titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. In it, Moynihan marshaled the ominous facts that signaled a crisis in the black family. He rehearsed the familiar story of the negative effects of slavery and discrimination on black employment rates and family stability. But—and this was not familiar—he presented additional statistics indicating that the pathology of the black family had taken on a life of its own. Up until 1960, Moynihan noted, unemployment rates and welfare rates had risen and fallen together. But in the early 60’s, welfare rates—along with crime, illegitimacy, and single-parent households—shot upward even as black male unemployment declined significantly.

Moynihan’s argument alerted the nation to the emerging phenomenon of what would later become known as the black underclass. Although the report included no policy recommendations, Moynihan supplemented it with memos to Johnson urging jobs programs with the government as employer of last resort and a family-assistance plan to supplement earned income. The report also supplied the framework for the President’s historic speech at Howard University in June 1965, where Johnson argued that while black Americans had made great strides toward freedom, freedom was not by itself sufficient. “We seek,” said Johnson, “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result,” and he concluded with a call for a White House conference to explore ways to secure this equality.



But in the aftermath of the Howard speech, black civil-rights leaders and their white allies on the Left turned on the Moynihan Report, and its author, with a vengeance. Black spokesmen were unhappy with the suggestion that their community was in any way responsible for its own problems. To focus on family instability, they insisted, was to divert attention from the real menace: white racism, and its manifestations in job discrimination, lax civil-rights enforcement, and an inadequate national commitment to eradicate poverty. Moynihan’s report, his critics charged, was misguided in its history, its statistics, and its implications, and Moynihan himself was “blaming the victim.” In the face of the outcry, the administration retreated with alacrity, and at the White House conference that fall the only significant reference to the black family was an attack on the (unnamed) report that had helped inspire the Howard University initiative just a few months earlier.

Moynihan was by then out of government and back in academia.3 He had been seared by the experience and it set off a process of rethinking that led him for the first time seriously to question the liberal assumptions that he—along with virtually the entire post-New Deal American intellectual elite—had taken as self-evident. Although he did not move sharply to the Right, he did reject the Utopian and sentimental radicalism of the liberal Left, identifying himself instead with the thinkers (including Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, and James Q. Wilson) who were involved in the launching of the quarterly Public Interest in the fall of 1965. (He had already coauthored Beyond the Melting Pot, an important study of ethnicity, with Glazer in 1963.)

All these men thought of themselves as social scientists, but they were less ready than most of their colleagues to see in social science the vehicle for an untroubled fulfillment of progressive aspirations. In Moynihan’s case, his newly tempered liberalism also coincided comfortably with a streak of Irish melancholy in his character, and especially with the intuition that life, after all, is infinitely complicated and arbitrary and—as he had remarked at the death of John F. Kennedy—will occasionally break your heart.

His distancing from conventional liberalism continued with the appearance of James S. Coleman’s 1966 study on education. Liberals had long assumed that economic inequality between blacks and whites had to do in significant part with unequal access to educational opportunities, which in turn determined life outcomes. Equalize those opportunities through governmental intervention—i.e., by spending more money on minority education—and economic disparities between the races would decline proportionately. The Coleman Report challenged all that. It showed, first, that the supposedly great divide in educational resources available to blacks and whites did not exist. Beyond that, it demonstrated that, of all the factors affecting student achievement, the most important was not levels of spending or curricular arrangements but family background.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact of the Coleman Report, about which Moynihan promptly organized a Harvard faculty symposium. As with the Moynihan Report, critics attacked both Coleman’s data and his motives, but for those open to the evidence, reading it was a stunning experience. For the report undermined left-wing assumptions not just about race but about politics in general. If government attempts to equalize educational achievement were as ineffectual as Coleman indicated, what might that suggest about the ability of public policy in general to bring about desired social outcomes?



By the late 1960’s, Moynihan was convinced that liberalism had taken the nation to the brink of disaster. Protests against the Vietnam war—a war, Moynihan noted, of “liberal anti-Communism”—had escalated into ever more violent confrontations on college campuses and into widespread alienation among the nation’s allegedly best and brightest from the basic institutions and values of American society. In domestic policy, a war on poverty and a succession of civil-rights bills had left a legacy of destructive and terrifying summer riots in the nation’s cities.

By 1967, Moynihan was advising his fellow liberals (he never entirely stopped thinking of himself as one) to seek a “politics of stability.” To that end, he told the members of Americans for Democratic Action, liberals should rid themselves of the illusion that the nation—especially its cities—could effectively be run from Washington. They should also, he said, “overcome the curious condescension that takes the form of defending and explaining away anything, however outrageous, which Negroes, individually or collectively, might do.” Finally, he suggested, they “must seek out and make much more effective alliances with political conservatives.”

And he was prepared to act on his own advice. Prior to the 1968 presidential election, Moynihan put out a discreet feeler to Richard Nixon, and, after Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in November, he accepted the new President’s offer to serve as domestic counselor. The move surprised and appalled Moynihan’s Harvard colleagues (as well as, Hodgson implies without explicitly saying so, his wife), and he was widely suspected of opportunism. But although Moynihan has never been lacking in ambition, or in the careful cultivation of those who might further his career, going to work for Nixon made a good deal of political and ideological sense. The Democratic party, in Moynihan’s view, was currently so in thrall to radicals black and white that it was incapable of effective governance. More positively, Nixon seemed to Moynihan the sort of enlightened conservative open to unfamiliar ideas. His administration could be, he hoped, one of “Tory men and Whig measures.”

Most particularly, Nixon was willing to take fresh initiatives in the interrelated areas of welfare, race, and poverty. Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Moynihan concluded, had failed because it depended on a bewildering and vastly inefficient complex of bureaucratic structures, whose fecklessness was compounded by the requirement that anti-poverty programs include the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor—which reduced in practice to the intimidating theatrics of black radical “community organizing,” or, as Tom Wolfe memorably put it, “mau-mauing the flak-catchers.” What the poor needed, Moynihan persuaded Nixon, was not more programs but money.

Nixon, accordingly, made the Family Assistance Plan (FAP) the heart of his first-term domestic program. Under FAP, which included work incentives, the existing welfare system would be scrapped and families would instead receive supplements to their income sufficient to raise them above the poverty line. In the end, a coalition of conservatives and leftists defeated the program—the former because it was too radical, the latter because it was not radical enough. Although Hodgson attempts to saddle Nixon with much of the blame—for never having given the plan his unqualified support—Moynihan, in a view that he has not changed since, spoke highly of the President and placed most of the blame on the liberals.

His fissure with the Left deepened in the Nixon years not only over FAP but over a curious reprise of the Moynihan Report furor. In January 1970, Moynihan prepared for the President “a general assessment of the position of Negroes.” Objectively considered, he said, blacks in America had made great economic and social progress, despite continuing unfavorable trends in crime and family instability. But radical rhetoric among groups like the Black Panthers and their white sympathizers had obscured much of that progress. “The time may have come,” Moynihan advised,

when the issue of race could benefit from a period of “benign neglect.” The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over [by] hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.

Someone leaked the memo to the New York Times, and the Left, willfully ignoring the sympathetic context in which the phrase “benign neglect” occurred, seized on it as evidence of the (at best) callous indifference toward blacks of the Nixon administration in general and of Moynihan in particular. As had been the case five years earlier, Moynihan was hurt and outraged by the manifestly unfair accusations of racism. Unlike in the earlier case, an administration unburdened by dependence on blacks or the Left offered him its full support.



When Moynihan left the Nixon White House toward the end of 1970—his strict two-year leave of absence from Harvard was coming to an end—he did so on continuing good terms with the President. Indeed, following Nixon’s reelection in 1972, he accepted an offer to become ambassador to India. By now, the Watergate scandal was coming to a boil, but Moynihan, rather than strategically distancing himself from Nixon, wrote to the President in late March 1973 declaring his “unshaken loyalty” and offering to return to the White House—an offer that Nixon, no doubt fortunately for Moynihan, did not take up. Even so, Moynihan arranged a visit to the western White House in San Clemente three months later, following which he concluded, as he confided to a friend, “I belonged with this crowd.”

During the Nixon years, Moynihan had aligned himself ever more closely with the neoconservative community, and in particular with Norman Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY. Toward the end of his relatively uneventful service in India, he took up Podhoretz’s suggestion that he write about America’s increasingly isolated situation at the United Nations. The result, published in COMMENTARY in March 1975, was “The United States in Opposition.” In this essay, Moynihan argued that the UN had come largely under the influence of a collectivist Third World ideology, much of it picked up by members of colonial elites who had been educated in England, where they absorbed the socialist beliefs of British academics. That ideology—against which much of the West now found itself unwilling or unable to contend—championed redistribution over production and equality over liberty, and had a pronounced anti-American flavor. It was time, Moynihan concluded, for the U.S. to “go into opposition” at the UN, time indeed “that the American spokesman [should come] to be feared in international forums for the truths he might tell.”

Moynihan would never write anything more directly influential. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger read the article immediately, brought it to the attention of President Gerald Ford, and by May 1975 Moynihan was ensconced as ambassador to the United Nations, practicing what his essay had proposed. In his stormy eight months at the UN, Moynihan pursued a strategy (not always, he thought, with the full support of Kissinger and the State Department) of aggressively defending American ideals and interests and, in relations with other countries, rewarding the nation’s friends and punishing its enemies.

One issue in particular defined Moynihan’s UN stewardship. Over the years, as he observed, there had been no better friend of the U.S. in the UN than Israel. And so, in 1975, to the resolution introduced by Arab nations and supported by the Soviet bloc condemning Zionism as a form of racism, he responded with outraged fury. Although he could not muster the votes to defeat the resolution, he denounced it in an eloquent and widely noticed speech that began and ended with a defiant sentence provided him by Podhoretz: “The United States rises to declare before the General Assembly of the UN, and before the world, that it does not acknowledge, it will never abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”

The stint at the UN brought Moynihan renewed notoriety, but this time of a mostly favorable kind, and he used it as a springboard, declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in June 1976. The Republican-Conservative incumbent, James L. Buckley, was considered vulnerable, but Moynihan faced formidable opposition in the September Democratic primary from Congresswoman Abzug, Paul O’Dwyer, and Ramsey Clark. Abzug was the favorite, and to this day many observers believe it was only the last-minute endorsement of Moynihan by the New York Times that allowed him to eke out a victory. He went on to defeat Buckley by a comfortable margin in November.

He was, though without affirming the label, the neoconservative candidate—a fact that was reflected both in the people who staffed his campaign and in those he brought with him to Washington. His closest associates were involved in the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), an organization whose de-facto hero was Senator Henry M. (“Scoop”) Jackson of Washington State and that hoped (in shorthand terms) to de-McGovernize the Democrats. After the defeat of Jackson in his second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, the CDM people saw Moynihan as their paladin, and were soon urging him to mount a primary challenge in 1980 to the ineffectual President Jimmy Carter. But it was not to be. Moynihan not only declined to challenge Carter—he rightly saw this as a hopeless enterprise—but became, in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, a more or less standard liberal Democratic Senator whose politics his erstwhile enthusiasts found difficult to explain. Whatever happened, they wondered in dismay, to Pat Moynihan?



What happened was political reality. Moynihan had won nomination only because the liberal vote in the predominantly liberal New York Democratic electorate had been split three ways. He felt himself hostage to the good opinion of the New York Times, which had supported him in 1976 only after a heated internal struggle. He feared a primary challenge from the Left in 1982. As for his neoconservative friends, they were of little political use to him. CDM had made almost no inroads in pushing the Democrats toward the Center, or in making them hospitable toward neoconservatives.

And then there was the neocons’ attitude toward Ronald Reagan. Prior to Reagan’s nomination in 1980, many if not most of them had considered him an ultraconservative lightweight; but once he was nominated, and especially once he was elected, Reagan quickly won over most neoconservatives, who were anyway drifting away from the Democratic party. (Three members of Moynihan’s early Senate staff, Elliott Abrams, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Charles Horner, eventually joined the Reagan administration.)

It is hardly surprising, in retrospect, that Moynihan declined to follow the neocons. Were he to do so, he knew, the New York state Democratic party would disown him. It must have seemed that to act as his neoconservative friends urged him to do would be to guarantee a future as a one-term Senator. But he had other things in mind. As he stated in declining to run against Carter, “I have absolutely no interest in the presidency. I’d like to stay in the Senate long enough to have some consequence. What I’d really like to do, if I could, would be to serve four terms.” And he proceeded to do what that ambition demanded.

This is not to suggest that he operated only out of political calculation. Moynihan had always been a fierce instinctive Democrat, and had never considered changing his party affiliation, even during his tenure in the Nixon White House. And whatever his flirtations with the Right, he never entirely lost faith in activist government and he certainly never supposed, as Reagan did, that government was the enemy. From very early on, he concluded that the large Reagan tax cuts—and the anticipated budget deficits resulting from them—were consciously intended to put a stranglehold on spending for domestic programs.

Ronald Reagan was, in any case, the most polarizing political figure of the last half-century, one about whom few people remained neutral. At whatever moment Moynihan decided he could not be a Reagan Democrat, he therefore became, willy-nilly, an anti-Reagan Democrat. Even as the political dynamics of the post-1980 situation drew most neoconservatives to the Right, they drew Moynihan, situated differently, in the opposite direction.

The decision to take on the Reagan administration solved his political problem. By 1982 he was invulnerable to attack from the Left, and from then until he had fulfilled his four-term ambition, he won renomination and reelection without significant opposition. As for the neoconservatives, what the Senator is quoted in this book as saying of his once close friendship with Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter could stand for his changing relationship with the neocons in general: “We didn’t split up. We drifted apart.”



Post-1982, Moynihan’s career in the Senate is largely anticlimactic, at least in terms of ideological analysis, and need not be dwelt on in detail.

On domestic issues, he generally voted, Hodgson notes, as a “New Deal Democrat.” From his progressively senior position on the Senate finance committee, he was particularly effective at securing for his New York constituents their fair share, and more, of government spending, and even those otherwise critical of his legislative record concede his skill at advancing his state’s interests. He worked to reform the tax system, especially for those with low incomes, and to keep the social-security system solvent. He wanted health-care reform, but not the Clintons’ comprehensive program. He vigorously opposed the line-item veto. After some early waffling, he opposed the attempt to impeach and convict President Clinton. He had, until his opposition to partial-birth abortion, an unblemished pro-choice record. (As a Catholic, he said, he considered abortion a sin, but he thought it a matter women would have to work out for themselves.)

Two items in Hodgson’s account suggest Moynihan’s limits as a legislator. The first is what the author holds up as perhaps Moynihan’s “most accomplished legislative achievement”: the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. It is not, one feels safe in saying, one of the landmark pieces of legislation in our time, and readers are likely to finish Hodgson’s summary unpersuaded of its significance if not baffled as to its content.

Then there is welfare reform, which had always been Moynihan’s signature issue and yet on which, as Hodgson concedes, he wound up “all but isolated.” He fought the welfare-reform act of 1996, which abolished the federal guarantee of cash assistance, largely on the grounds that welfare recipients were “in enormous proportion . . . essentially failed persons”—a condescension unusual for, and unworthy of, him. Perhaps more tellingly, his opposition was colored by a peculiar, and ever more indulgently sentimental, indignation:

Just how many millions of infants we will put to the sword is not yet clear. . . . Those involved will take this disgrace to the grave. The children alone are innocent. . . . I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, but the effect on New York City would be something approaching an Apocalypse. . . . [J]ust you wait until there are a third of a million children in the streets. That’s what you are talking about—children on grates. . . . Our only hope is to save the children.

Then there were the issues of foreign policy and national security, issues on which, in political terms, it probably would have been easier for Moynihan to stick with his neoconservative friends. Here too, however, he moved Left. He continued to share the contempt for Communism central to neoconservatism, but, having decided that the USSR was a declining power, he opposed much of the Reagan defense program. And although he would never have thought of himself as a dove in foreign policy, that is how, more often than not, he voted in the Senate. He disapproved of CIA covert-action programs in Central America and opposed efforts to undermine the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, at one point temporarily resigning in pique as vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. (Moynihan later concluded that the CIA should be abolished.) He came out against the invasion of Grenada in 1983 on the grounds that it violated international law, the scrupulous defense of which became for him an issue that took priority over national-security concerns. As Hodgson approvingly notes, Moynihan had moved some distance away from “orthodox anti-Communism.” By the time he voted against the Gulf war in 1991, he seemed considerably removed in spirit from the man who had written “The United States in Opposition” and who had championed American interests so vigorously at the UN.



In the twilight of his career, tributes to Moynihan roll in (including, in early August, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor). The senior Senator has become, in Hodgson’s words, “a legend, a monument, a Grand Old Man.” Even his most severe critics acknowledge his astonishing intellectual range, his enormous, catholic curiosity about and polymathic knowledge of all manner of things. His voluminous writings have touched on, among other subjects, traffic safety, drugs, architecture, race, welfare, social security, international law, diplomacy, ethnicity, urban affairs, government secrecy, social deviance, crime, and education. Those writings demonstrate a mind that, while often inconsistent, is almost never uninteresting.

As a Senator, Moynihan has taken evident pleasure and satisfaction in living what is, as a former neoconservative aide put it, “a pretty damn good life.” A quarter-century in the Senate might itself be considered the best revenge for the manifold slights he endured earlier in his career. He has been a significant intellectual and oratorical presence among his colleagues, and even those who disparage his legislative accomplishments have basked in the reflected glory his reputation as a scholar brings to the body.

Yet it is not clear what Moynihan’s years in the Senate finally add up to. As a legislator, he has been, while more dutiful to his party than not, essentially unclubbable, and he has operated for the most part as an independent agent. Moynihan’s Senate career brings to mind the irritation expressed by a prominent New Dealer concerning certain eccentric progressive senators of his day who insisted, above all else, on their independence. “They cannot lead,” he complained, “and they will not follow.”



To contemporaries and historians alike, the great controversy over Moynihan will always involve his ideological peregrinations. His defenders, like Hodgson, think that Moynihan finally “came home” to the liberalism that was always his natural place of residence and from which he had strayed only under extraordinary circumstances. The more gentle of his neoconservative critics conclude with resignation that as a Senator he followed, perhaps understandably, the path of least resistance. The still embittered among them say bluntly that he sold out. Moynihan himself insists that he stayed essentially stationary as the political spectrum shifted around him.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to sort this out definitively. But consider a thought experiment. Suppose that, in 1976, Moynihan had lost the Democratic primary rather than narrowly winning it, and had thereupon returned permanently to academic life. Where then would he finally have found his ideological home? The conclusion seems inescapable that he would have continued to develop as one of the most powerful critics of the liberal Left on the contemporary American scene, an eloquent and consistent champion of neoconservative-style reform, and one of the most truly influential voices of the age. One wonders if, in moments of reflection, Daniel Patrick Moynihan himself ever contemplates such a counter-scenario.



1 The Gentleman from New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 464 pp., $35.00.

2 The first of Moynihan’s many appearances in COMMENTARY was with an article entitled “ ‘Bosses’ and ‘Reformers’—A Profile of the New York Democrats” (June 1961).

3 His reflections on this entire episode are contained in “The President & the Negro: The Moment Lost,” COMMENTARY, February 1967.


About the Author

James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

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