Commentary Type

How Moynihan Found the Center

Op-ed in the Daily Beast


When Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York died in 2003, he left the largest single collection of personal papers ever given over to the Library of Congress, where they are spread through more than 3,700 boxes. There they take up nearly 1,500 feet of shelf space, the equivalent of two Washington Monuments laid end to end.

Two years ago I embarked on a journey through these papers-now concluded with the publication of a book of Moynihan's private letters and journals (Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary). But what started as an adventure through the life of one of the great American public intellectuals of modern times ended with a new understanding of the evolution of American politics toward the sorry and disputatious state to which they have sunk this year.

The existence of such a vast repository of papers and letters may be no surprise for a man as heroically prolific as Moynihan. He worked as an influential policy adviser for four presidents (Kennedy to Ford), served four terms in the United States Senate, and delivered endless speeches, essays, and public statements. He also wrote, cowrote, or edited at least 18 books about a staggering range of subjects from secrecy to ethnicity, poverty, and diplomacy. And he left at least 10,000 pages of private correspondence, having written to everyone from presidents and secretaries of state to leading intellectuals, celebrities, and statesmen, not to mention constituents and friends. His correspondents include Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Woody Allen, Yoko Ono, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and countless others, including the folks at Brooks Brothers (to whom he complained about holes in his new socks).

Fortuitously the letters have now come out at a time when the public seems to be yearning for something that Moynihan represented but that has all but disappeared: discourse that for all its disagreement was civil, respectful, and leavened by humor. (When in his first Senate campaign, Moynihan's opponent tried to appeal to the working class by referring to him as "professor," Moynihan replied, "The mudslinging has begun!")

I am often asked what insights I gained from these letters that were not apparent from the extremely public life that Moynihan led for more than four decades.

First, I would say in response that we see in the letters not so much a different Pat Moynihan but a Moynihan more anguished about his controversies, more self-absorbed, more vulnerable, more filled with both a sense of both pride and grievance, than has been publicly understood. These emotions begin in his early diaries as a student on a Fulbright grant in London. From such early writings we learn more of his troubled, complicated relationship with his parents and the pain suffered when the family was abandoned by his own father when young Pat was 10. He never saw his father again after that.

In public Moynihan rarely talked about his upbringing, but in the diaries he did. "Both my mother and father-they let me down badly," he wrote. He told a psychiatrist he was seeing that he understood he was obliged to hate his father for walking away-but that on occasion he was "overwhelmed by simple tender childish emotions" toward him. He also writes of his tendency to adopt "enormous emotional attachment toward Father substitutes-of whom the least rejection was cause for untold agonies."

A little more than a dozen years later, Moynihan was writing to President Lyndon Johnson about the plight of broken black families. "You were born poor," he tells the president. "You were brought up poor. Yet you came of age full of ambition, energy, and ability. Because your mother and father gave it to you. The richest inheritance any child can have is a stable, loving, disciplined family life." What we see here is Moynihan clearly yearning for something he never had himself.

But there was another aspect to Moynihan's unstable childhood: a lifelong devotion to the stability of institutions, especially government, and to the success of presidents. Following Nixon's resignation in 1974, Moynihan noted to the US embassy staff in New Delhi, where he was serving as ambassador to India, that Nixon was "the third President in a row to be destroyed in office." He added, "There is, I think…an institutional dimension with which we, who are in Government, whose concern is with such institutions, who are part of them, ought to be concerned and can usefully consider."

The letters remind us of how hard it is to shore up institutions by trying to occupy the fractured center of American politics, as he tried to do. His private struggle bears fascinating implications for our sorely tested system today.

But Moynihan's desire to understand and promote accommodation and success in government obviously did not simply derive from a psychological need. It stemmed from his understanding of an essential ideological and cultural tension in American politics. Indeed, in the last month of his life, Pat Moynihan, perhaps because he knew he was not well, summed up this tension in a note to himself, recalling a major tenet of his thinking he first enunciated at Harvard in a lecture in 1985.

"In some [40] years of government work I have learned one thing for certain," he wrote. "As I have put it, the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. Thanks to this interaction, we're a better society in nearly all respects than we were."

What lesson was this former Harvard professor trying to teach at the end of his life?

Typically Moynihan saw these contradictory strains, not as destructive, but healthy and revitalizing. This is worth remembering at a time of corrosive American divisions, in an election season that, no matter what happens, will usher in a new period of conflicting points of view that must have the courage to listen to, and accommodate, each other.

It must be said that he was often naïve as he sought a "vital center" in American politics-nowhere more than his embrace of Richard Nixon. When during the tumultuous 1968 presidential campaign, he wrote to his friend Harry McPherson, who was still serving in the Johnson White House, that a Nixon administration "would be genuinely interested in our views," McPherson wrote back: "My God consider that sentence…Do you know Nixon? Do you know who will run the government for him?"

On the other hand, five years later, Moynihan was in India as Watergate consumed the Nixon presidency, and Moynihan's regrets gushed to the surface. "Have I been a fool or a whore or both?" he wrote his friend Nathan Glazer. "Or perhaps something quite different: something perhaps to be forgiven."

Moynihan's attempts to occupy the center ran through his Senate career as well. He had a conservative's skepticism of foreign aid, the Peace Corps, and government funds for "services" and "community action programs" ostensibly for the poor. He constantly reminded correspondents that these programs were paid for by hard-working Americans of modest means like his mother. Yet he had an expansive view of the need for Social Security and other elements of the social safety net, including welfare as an entitlement. Like Ted Kennedy, with whom he disagreed on many things, he was infuriated when President Clinton signed legislation to abolish welfare as an entitlement in 1996.

Moynihan was a Cold War, anticommunist Democrat who came late to his disillusionment with the Vietnam War. He was a proud supporter of defense spending. But in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was building up the military against Moscow, he warned presciently against the overestimation of Soviet economic and military power and predicted that the Soviet Union would soon break up.

Another thing we see in these letters is that the toxic culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s have in fact receded. In the White House Moynihan warned of terrorist attacks in the United States, but he was alluding to the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. The generational and racial hatreds of that period have receded. We have a black president, a spreading movement for gay marriage and gays in the military, and women in positions of unprecedented power. We have not banished racism and bigotry in our discussions of Islam and immigrants, but they are not the central focus of our concerns.

Instead we are back to the period evoked in Moynihan's early letters of the 1940s and 1950s, when conservatives felt that the New Deal was a socialist or even communist plot, and that government was taking over American lives in a dangerous and poisonous way. Facing a bleak economic future, we are having a debate about how much government is healthy, a subject of lifelong concern to Pat Moynihan. He would be the first to tell us that such a debate is not only inevitable, it is in the best traditions of American history and that in the end it will strengthen our country rather than weaken it.

Whether in working on poverty programs or race, Moynihan understood the tension between demanding that governments work and skepticism about how well they work, which may be the healthiest way to get to the synthesis we need.

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