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How to Govern a Divided Country

In an era of turmoil, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Nixon adviser, wrote a series of letters and memos to the president on how to make the center hold. It’s still good advice.


Daniel Patrick Moynihan served four presidents (from Kennedy to Ford) before representing New York in the Senate, where he worked (and tangled) with another four presidents, from Carter to Clinton. But his relationship with Richard Nixon, in the White House and as ambassador to India, was the most anguished of his long career. Moynihan’s private letters to Nixon and his sta≠, many of them made public here for the first time, are one of the richest literary legacies of one of the nastiest eras of modern American history.

In Moynihan’s White House tenure, the Nixon team was trying to manage the spectacular, incendiary birth of the political universe we still live in today: war protests, racial violence, environmental consciousness, feminist anger, generational conflict, and divisions between liberals and the white working class. The letters show how Moynihan sometimes tried to appeal to Nixon’s better impulses and transcend the nation’s divisions, but how on other occasions he would mount the ramparts with Nixon and his sta≠ and reinforce their resentment of liberal elitists, pampered student protesters, and black militants. The letters published here show Moynihan as consummate diplomat, never two-faced but always conscious of his audience. And the letters, while written for the president, his aides, and Moynihan’s friends, also seem, with their Founding Father eloquence, to be written for history

Moynihan was dubious about Vietnam, and he urged the president not to make Johnson’s war into Nixon’s war. As a New Frontier and Great Society liberal, and the most prominent Democrat in a Republican White House, he thought (naïvely, his friends believed) he could help Nixon find a new vital center in American politics. It was a risky role to play, parts of which Moynihan came to regret, never more, as the last letter shows, than when Watergate raged.

Today, as President Obama confronts a similarly divided nation, Moynihan’s efforts stand as remarkably relevant and evocative. He could draw lines in the sand, but more often he tried to find middle ground, believing in the face of overwhelming evidence that bi-partisanship was possible. As these letters show, it could be a complicated endeavor, and a lonely one. Reasonable people, who see the world in three dimensions, are not guaranteed victory— possibly closer to the opposite. But Moynihan, with his hopes for the Republic, would no doubt have advised the current president that the difficulty of this work was precisely why he had to continue to do it.

January 3, 1969
To: The President Elect

Before the storm breaks, as it were, on the 20th, I would like to send in a few extended comments on some of the longer-range issues that face you, but will tend, I should imagine, to get lost in the daily succession of crises …

It has fallen to you to assume the governance of a deeply divided country. And to do so with a divided government. … A divided nation makes terrible demands on the president. It would seem important to try to anticipate some of them, at least, and to ponder whether there is not some common element in each that might give a measure of coherence and unity to the president’s own responses and, by a process of diffusion, to provide a guide for the administration as a whole.

I believe there is such a common element. In one form or another all of the major domestic problems facing you derive from the erosion of the authority of the institutions of American society. This is a mysterious process of which the most that can be said is that once it starts it tends not to stop.

… All we know is that the sense of institutions being legitimate—especially the institutions of government—is the glue that holds societies together. When it weakens, things come unstuck.

… Moreover we retain a tradition of revolutionary rhetoric that gives an advantage to those who challenge authority rather than those who uphold it.

… Yet it remains the case that relationships based on authority are consensual ones: That is to say they are based on common agreement to behave in certain ways. It is said that freedom lives in the interstices of authority: When the structure collapses, freedom disappears, and society is governed by relationships based on power.

Increasing numbers of Americans seem of late to have sensed this, and to have become actively concerned about the drift of events. Your election was, in a sense, the first major consequence of that mounting concern. Your administration represents the first significant opportunity to change the direction in which events move.

Your task, then, is clear: to restore the authority of American institutions.

Not, certainly, under that name, but with a clear sense that what is at issue is the continued acceptance by the great mass of the people of the legitimacy and efficacy of the present arrangements of American society, and of our processes for changing those arrangements.


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