Man knows not his time

Culture | Daniel Patrick Moynihan-an intelligent public servant -fit neatly into no one's political label

Issue: "War inside the red zone," April 12, 2003

The burial in Arlington Cemetery last week of Daniel Patrick Moynihan signals the passing of one of the most controversial and formative eras in American history-and the loss of one of the greatest political minds to serve the American nation in our times. With war coverage dominant, many news organizations had to be apologetic about downplaying their obituaries. "There's not enough time in the middle of this war for us to pay appropriate attention to a great American who has died today," said ABC star Peter Jennings in a less-than-100-word item.

The four-term former U.S. senator's literary sense of humor would no doubt find irony in the fact that it was the appendix that was his undoing. The main chapters of his life are a stellar record of political achievement and drama. He served four presidents-two from each party-in positions ranging from assistant secretary of labor to ambassadorial posts in India and at the United Nations. Later, his four terms in the Senate representing New York would earn him the respect of both parties, as well as their consternation.

Moynihan was born in Tulsa, Okla., but was quickly moved with his family to New York City. He was only 9 when his father abandoned the family to poverty in the infamous Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. Service in the Navy was Moynihan's escape from the pathology of the city, and the G.I. bill and a Fulbright Scholarship would take him through advanced studies at Tufts University and the London School of Economics.

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If not for his sense of public duty, Moynihan would have been safely sequestered in academia. But his intellectual brilliance and pragmatic expertise came to the attention of the Kennedy administration, where he was put to work on some of the most vexing issues of the 1960s.

He was the first major figure to identify the disintegration of black families as the primary barrier to black economic advancement when he released his now famous 1965 paper, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." White or black, "a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future-that community asks for and gets chaos."

What Moynihan got was liberal outrage, and he was hounded out of the Johnson administration. His concerns for the stability of the family and the essential role of male authority in the home were clearly out of step with the new liberal agenda of building expansive government programs instead of solving the nation's fundamental problems.

That could have been the end of Moynihan's public career, but his work caught the attention of Richard Nixon as Nixon was on his way to the presidency. Moynihan again outraged the liberals by accepting a domestic policy post in the Nixon administration, which in the eyes of the liberal elite was tantamount to going over to the enemy.

Later service as U.S. ambassador to India set the stage for his brief but important role as ambassador to the United Nations under President Gerald Ford. He supported Israel and denounced communism, declaring that the Soviet Union was on its way to eventual dissolution. That radical (but accurate) observation set him against Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the starched shirts of the State Department.

First elected in 1976, Moynihan's four terms in the Senate marked him as a contradictory philosopher-king among his colleagues. Was he liberal or conservative? It was often hard to tell. He supported welfare reform in theory, but opposed the 1996 welfare-reform bill. He called for a national health policy but helped to kill Hillary Clinton's proposed national health insurance program. He ran on a pro-abortion platform, but stood on the Senate floor and called partial-birth abortion "infanticide." At his death he was serving as co-chair of President Bush's Social Security Commission, and had concluded that Americans must be able to build wealth for retirement through investment.

In the end, no political label fit Daniel Patrick Moynihan comfortably. The classic expression of his political philosophy may be this: "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."

That last sentence frames the contradictions of Moynihan's statecraft. True conservatives remain steadfastly unconvinced that politics alone can save a culture. Moynihan seemed to understand social deviancy, but not moral depravity. His view of human rights was rooted in an essentially secular vision-thus his support for a woman's "right" to an abortion.


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