Moynihan, Daniel Patrick (“Pat”)

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Moynihan, Daniel Patrick (“Pat”)

(b. 16 March 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; d. 26 March 2003 in Washington, D.C.), U.S. senator, ambassador, and social scientist who blended scholarship, policy, and politics in an insightful but mercurial manner.

Moynihan was the oldest of three children of John Henry Moynihan, a newspaper reporter and an advertising copywriter, and Margaret Ann (Phipps) Moynihan, a practical nurse. Theirs was the type of troubled family that Moynihan would spend his career studying and trying to save. They moved from Oklahoma to the New York and New Jersey suburbs, following the father’s jobs, until he deserted them in 1937. Moynihan’s mother’s second marriage also failed, after adding another child to the family. She moved her children into a succession of low-rent apartments in New York City and occasionally resorted to public assistance. Moynihan attended parochial and public schools while earning income by shining shoes and selling newspapers. After graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School in 1943 in East Harlem, New York City, he worked as a stevedore on the Hudson River piers.

Admitted to the City College of New York in 1943, Moynihan juggled his classes with his work on the docks for a year until he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After service as a gunnery officer, he was discharged in 1947 and briefly tended bar in a saloon that his mother had bought in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City (creating the often repeated assumption that he had spent his childhood in Hell’s Kitchen). The GI Bill paid his way to Tufts College, where he received a BA in 1948. He added an MA in 1949 from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts College; his dissertation was a study of international labor issues. Failure to pass the foreign service exam shifted his sights to a PhD, which he received—also from Tufts College—in 1961, with a dissertation entitled “The United States and the International Labor Organization, 1889–1934.” On a Fulbright Scholarship he attended the London School of Economics and Political Science from 1950 to 1951. The experience broadened his cultural interests, developed his intellectual skepticism, and revamped his wardrobe. Moynihan stayed in England for two more years as a budget officer at a U.S. Air Force base and returned to the United States more polished, confident, and dapper.

Sailing back to New York City in 1953, Moynihan met the New York Democratic activist Paul Riley, who arranged for him to work for the mayoral campaign of Robert F. Wagner, Jr. The next year Moynihan campaigned for Averell Harriman for governor and served on the governor’s staff. When Harriman was defeated for reelection in 1958, he arranged for Moynihan to direct the New York State Government Research Project at Syracuse University to write a history of his administration. It was never published because Harriman considered the text too critical. On 29 May 1955 Moynihan married a fellow Harriman staff member, Elizabeth Therese “Liz” Brennan. They had three children.

After campaigning for John F. Kennedy for president in 1960, Moynihan served as special assistant to the secretary of labor, Arthur Goldberg. By 1963 he had risen to assistant secretary of labor for policy planning and research. He held subcabinet or cabinet-level positions in four consecutive presidential administrations. His initial work ranged from the rehabilitation of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., to the planning for the War on Poverty. In a report entitled “One Third of a Nation,” he outlined the bleak economic future of untrained and poorly educated young men.

The lanky, erudite, politically ambitious Moynihan ran for New York City Council president in 1965 on a Democratic slate headed by the city’s former sanitation commissioner, Paul Screvane. Their campaign encountered unexpected controversy arising from a book Moynihan had coauthored with the sociologist Nathan Glazer, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (1963). Although Moynihan had written only about Irish Americans, he came under fire from all the other groups who resented the book’s candid characterizations. President Lyndon Johnson, irritated by Moynihan’s closeness to his rival, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, further undermined Moynihan by leaking his classified report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The “Moynihan Report” pointed to the deterioration of the black family; the rising number of poor, unmarried mothers; and the high rate of delinquency, school dropouts, and drug abuse among their children. Its release coincided with riots in the Los Angeles district of Watts and was interpreted as blaming the riots on the victims of poverty. Black leaders accused Moynihan of insensitivity and racism. The beleaguered Moynihan and the bewildered Screvane both went down to defeat in the Democratic primary that September.

Despite angry fire from academic quarters, Moynihan was invited to spend a year as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University and then to direct the Joint Center for Urban Studies sponsored by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Resentment over his rough treatment from the Left led Moynihan to associate with an emerging band of neoconservatives. These former liberals had grown dubious about the efficacy of the Great Society’s social reforms, which they dissected in articles for the Public Interest and Commentary. With them Moynihan developed second thoughts about the poverty programs’ efforts at “maximum feasible participation” by those living in poverty. Federally encouraged community action programs had pitted the poor against local governments in confrontations that jeopardized all social welfare programs. Moynihan described this phenomenon as “maximum feasible misunderstanding.” His analysis brought more condemnation from the Left, whom he accused of turning any statement of fact into a question of motive.

The campus radicalism of the New Left further disturbed him. In a speech to Americans for Democratic Action in 1967, Moynihan decried violence in society and called on liberals to build alliances with political conservatives to restore a stable social order. Following the death of Robert Kennedy, whom he supported for president in 1968, Moynihan volunteered to help the Republican candidate for president, Richard M. Nixon. Eager to place some prominent intellectuals in his administration, President Nixon appointed Moynihan as his assistant for urban affairs and counselor to the president. Moynihan pushed the Nixon administration to replace the existing welfare system with a Family Assistance Plan, a negative income tax that would provide guaranteed income to the poor in an effort to reverse the trend toward broken families. The plan passed the House of Representatives but narrowly failed in the Senate, a defeat Moynihan blamed on liberals for distrusting the administration’s intentions. In return the Left opened fire on him when a memo he had written to the president appeared in the press, revealing that he had advocated “benign neglect” of emotional racial issues.

To retain his tenure, Moynihan returned to Harvard in 1971, but the turbulent political conditions there made him receptive to an appointment as the U.S. ambassador to India in 1973. In India, Moynihan confronted Third World anti-Americanism. In an article called “The United States in Opposition,” which appeared in Commentary in 1975, he called on the United States to stop apologizing to its critics and start asserting itself, particularly at the United Nations (UN). Secretary of State Henry Kissinger cited the article to convince President Gerald Ford to appoint Moynihan as ambassador to the United Nations. At the UN, Moynihan proved an able negotiator, but he undermined his diplomacy with his angry, outspoken reactions to the international body’s honoring the dictator Idi Amin of Uganda and its passing a resolution equating Zionism with racism. Moynihan’s fiery accusations startled UN delegates and caused Kissinger to force him out after only eight months. The publicity propelled Moynihan into the race for the New York Democratic senatorial nomination in 1976. His leading opponent was Representative Bella Abzug, whose aggressive liberalism contrasted vividly with his neoconservatism. An endorsement by the New York Times helped Moynihan eke out a victory with 9,000 votes in the primary. In November he defeated the Republican-Conservative candidate James Buckley with 54.2 percent of the vote.

Moynihan thrived in the Senate, excelling in floor debate and behind the scenes in committee, where the real work was done. He traded his vote for Senate majority leader to the candidate who could get him a seat on the powerful Finance Committee and also drew assignments on the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Budget Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, the Rules and Administration Committee, and the Select Committee on Intelligence. He worked assiduously to bring federal money back to his state and sponsored legislation requiring the federal government to shoulder a larger share of welfare and Medicare costs. Although dismayed by the apparent ineptness of President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Moynihan resisted suggestions that he challenge the incumbent for the presidential nomination in 1980. Ronald Reagan’s victory that year helped clarify Moynihan’s own political identity. To everyone’s surprise, he shifted from the right to the left of center and became a leading liberal critic of the Reagan administration.

Moynihan was outraged when the Reagan administration proposed reductions in Social Security benefits, and he persuaded the Senate to reject the proposal unanimously. In 1982 Moynihan won reelection with 65 percent of the vote over Florence M. Sullivan (in 1988 he took 67 percent of the vote over Robert McMillan, and in 1994 he withstood a Republican tide by winning with 55 percent of the vote over Bernadette Castro). Democratic victories in the 1982 elections persuaded the Reagan administration to seek a compromise on Social Security. In 1983 Moynihan and the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Robert Dole, forged a bill that stabilized Social Security through tax increases and trimming of benefits.

There was no monumental “Moynihan Act” during Moynihan’s four terms in the Senate, but he exerted influence over much of the legislation that came through his committees. Dealing with the tax reform of 1986, he worked with the Republican chairman of the Finance Committee, Robert Packwood, to close tax shelters and other loopholes for the wealthy while protecting tax breaks for nonprofit organizations. His Family Support Act of 1988 toughened child support enforcement, mandated state support for poor two-parent families, and offered training and other incentives for welfare recipients to seek employment. He managed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991 and shaped that massive transportation bill to reduce the traditional bias for highway construction over mass transit.

By the time that the Democrat Bill Clinton had become president in 1993, Moynihan was chairman of the Finance Committee, the first New Yorker to hold that chairmanship in more than a century. Having reached this pinnacle, Moynihan found himself out of step with a Democratic administration that intended to change society through social policy. Clinton ignored Moynihan’s advice to tackle welfare reform first and chose universal health care as his premier objective. Moynihan responded that national health care might be ailing but was not in crisis, and he dismissed the administration’s claims that its plan would save money. The Clinton health plan failed to gain either bipartisan backing in Congress or grassroots support across the nation. Inability to enact health-care reform cost congressional Democrats their majority in the 1994 elections, and with the majority went Moynihan’s chairmanship.

In the minority, Moynihan voted against a Republican-sponsored welfare reform bill to abolish Aid to Dependent Children and was profoundly shaken when Clinton signed it. In a heated exchange with the president on Air Force One, Moynihan accused him of abandoning traditional Democratic Party principles. The Clinton administration regarded the senator as a cantankerous gadfly whose temperament seemed better suited for a critic of politics than a player. Yet by comparison to the new class of intensely partisan members of Congress, Moynihan appeared a thoughtful scholar-statesman. He gingerly reconciled himself with Clinton, voting for the president’s acquittal after Republicans in the House of Representatives impeached him for committing perjury about his relationship with a White House intern. When Moynihan announced his retirement from the Senate, he endorsed as his successor the president’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. In 2000 President Clinton awarded Moynihan the Presidential Medal of Freedom (an honor that Moynihan helped establish during the Kennedy administration).

Out of the Senate, Moynihan taught for a year at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and became a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. He lived in an apartment above Pennsylvania Avenue, whose redevelopment he had successfully advocated, and maintained a small farm near Pindars Corner in upstate New York. He died of complications from a ruptured appendix. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Eloquent, urbane, amusing, and knowledgeable in debate, Moynihan could be an exceedingly unpredictable politician. Over his long career he was variously identified as a liberal, a neoconservative, a neoliberal, a pragmatist, and an iconoclast. His only ideology, Moynihan insisted, was the avoidance of ideology. He played the role of public intellectual, addressing himself to public audiences rather than just to his academic peers. He combined social science theory with political action, but having changed from a social engineer to a skeptic of social engineering, he concluded that the true role of the social sciences was to call attention to problems and to measure the results of policies, not to formulate policy. Despite the corkscrew turns in his thinking, he remained consistent in his passionate concern for families, preparing future generations to live productive lives.

Moynihan’s papers are at the Library of Congress. Biographies include Douglas E. Schoen, Pat: A Biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1979); Robert A. Katzmann, ed., Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The Intellectual in Public Life (1998); and Godfrey Hodgson, The Gentleman from New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Biography (2000). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post (both 27 Mar. 2003). Columbia University has a brief oral history interview with him.

Donald A. Ritchie