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Meditations on Moynihan's Departure

The scene is Brown’s Hotel in the heart of Mayfair, London. We are a
pretty ritzy group: Pat Moynihan, our ambassador to India, Frank Hauser,
director of the Oxford Theatre, Michael Oakshott, a distinguished
English political philosopher, a handful of professors from the London
School of Economics, and then, from the more vulgar walks of life, my
wife, story editor of United Artists. We drank our tea in the English
manner, then everyone ran off but Moyn and my wife.

The real subject on Moyn’s mind was that President Nixon had just
offered him the position of librarian of Congress. “The office has a
great view,” said Moyn matter-of-factly. “You hold the position as long
as you like. At least until they start asking you if you’re thinking of
moving on.”

My wife boldly told Moyn that he was too young to be librarian of
Congress, and that it was a great job for someone getting ready to
retire. Moyn looked pensive. “I’d have plenty of time to write books,”
he said longingly. (He had already written the brilliant “Beyond the
Melting Pot” and, writing during his summers at Pindar’s Corners up in
New York State, he was to finish no fewer than 18 more books.)

As if coming to a subject of real importance, Moyn now looked with a
start at my shoes, which were disreputable as usual. With considerable
feeling he recommended a bootmaker on Bond Street.

What few people realize about Moynihan is how wide his interests are,
ranging from custom-made shoes, to working class families, to the poetry
of William Butler Yeats, to Romanesque cathedrals. I once drove around
the Continent of Europe with him and, despite his name, Yeats, and all
the Irish talk from people who don’t know him, I can attest that he is
an ardent Anglophile. You can tell from the way he dresses. His accent,
also, is far from New York. Not that it’s English either. I think it’s
an accent he made up himself — a phenomenon not unknown to statesmen.

Moynihan came to national attention with a blaze in 1965 with the
“Moynihan Report,” in which he demonstrated his extreme concern over the
exploitation, poverty, and unemployment of the black community — which
had resulted in the “profound weakening of Negro family structure.”
Widely misinterpreted, the report’s principal concern was increasing
black employment. When rioting broke out in Watts in the Los Angeles
area in the late 1960s, much of the responsibility, unfairly, was laid
at Moynihan’s door.

Nixon’s appointment, and Moynihan’s acceptance, to be our ambassador
to the United Nations was the luckiest political break of Moynihan’s
life. People don’t always remember this now, but in the early 1970s the
U.S. was the target of innumerable attacks not only from the Soviet
Union but from the Third World majority then coming to dominate the U.N.
His speeches in defense of the U.S. (and Israel) had made him widely
known and admired in New York (not always the case for ambassadors to
the U.N.). Moynihan’s first election to the U.S. Senate was a knockdown
drag-out fight with that well-known New York Stalinist Bella Abzug — a
combat which now seems as if it took place on another planet.

It is worth remembering that for the election to the U.S. Senate the
N.Y. Times editorial page of the day supported Abzug almost completely,
and had written an enthusiastic editorial endorsing her. This was
overruled by Punch Sulzberger, who wrote his own endorsement, this time
for Moynihan. (“I own the paper, don’t I?”) Moynihan finally won by a
fraction of one percent.

From here his popularity in America mounted steadily. Decline in
Soviet power and influence had something to do with this, for Moynihan
was never taken in by one word of Communist doctrine. He was attached to
— or at least participated in — John Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon
Johnson’s White House, and Richard Nixon’s domestic policy team (of
which he was a very influential member). He has also been Nixon’s
ambassador to India, not to mention a four-term U.S. Senator.

Moynihan has spent much of his life in the dark and bloody ground
where social science and practical policy making come together. When in
1993, the Clinton administration’s “Goals 2000” boldly affirmed that by
the year 2000 America’s high school graduation rate would be 90 percent,
and that American students would lead the world in mathematics and
science, Moynihan compared these goals to the old Soviet grain
production quotas. Of Clinton’s grandiose “Goals 2000” objectives, he
said, “That will not happen.” Nor did it.

Although Moynihan’s father abandoned his family when Moynihan was at
an early age, and the two never met again, Moyn continued to believe —
and seems to believe to this day — that “families are the principal
conduits of class structure.” it was the family he never had which in a
way increased his emotional attachment to the principle.

Moynihan has an unusually complex character for a politician — and
for even a statesman-politician. He remains skeptical about what
government can do, but his biographer, Godfrey Hodgson, feels this
skepticism is part of a “pessimism, almost a melancholy, about the
workings of the universe and its human inhabitants,” which pessimism is
quite compatible with “cheerfulness, even ebullience, about the actual
workings of government.”

Moynihan’s friend, Professor James Q. Wilson, whom Moynihan knew for
collegial reasons while both were professors at Harvard (a period for
Moynihan very brief), has said that Moynihan is the possessor of a
“luminous intellect, personal conviction, deep historical knowledge …
and above all an incorruptible devotion to the common good.”

This leaves out mainly Moynihan’s boundless personal warmth and
humor. Once he was taken sick at an official dinner in Paris. The reader
must realize that intoxication by means of alcohol is only of very minor
importance in Japan, so when his Japanese friend, Mori Shizume, realized
Moynihan’s illness, he rushed out to tell the attendant press corps,
“Senator not sick! He only drunk!” Moynihan was not drunk at all. But
when his food poisoning had passed, he repeated to his friends as if
with pride Shizume’s words: “Senator not sick! He only drunk!”

Lacking his conviviality, humor, and above all his devotion to the
common good, one wonders when the Senate will see his like again.