Closing the Books

Pat Moynihan, what do you think your legacy is?

He pauses. He has called me on a Saturday morning about two weeks after the election, from the same farm near Oneonta whose loam I had despoiled, along with about 250 of my closest friends, that long-ago July day when the proprietor walked Hillary down the road and into New York politics.

“Well, I have two tracks in my life,” he says. “One is that I have been a writer, and I have written some pretty serious books. And then there is the time in government. My time in the Senate could be easily defined. My interest was foreign affairs, but my responsibility was New York.”

I wanted to know because, in the previous couple of months, the Times had begun to size up his legacy in two articles. The conclusions: half-baked scholar, gadfly-ish and inconsequential pol.

Strange, I thought. When South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond retires, or dies, they’ll probably name the state after him. Jesse Helms’s career of blocking family-planning money for countries where birth rates challenge Sprewell’s scoring average and keeping funds away from the United Nations will be celebrated by every newspaper in North Carolina when the day comes. But here’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan – the Senate’s philosopher-king and all that – hanging up the voting card after 24 years, and all the state’s flagship liberal paper has to say to him is Don’t steal any paper clips on your way out.

Moynihan is, it almost goes without saying, a fascinating fellow. But if anything, Moynihaniography – that is, the study and interpretation of Moynihan down through the decades – is even more fascinating.

For years, his reputation was inviolate. He was a seer, a thinker, a man, as it was often put, ahead of his time on issues ranging from poverty and illegitimacy to the collapse of the Soviet Union to the reemergence of ethnic nationalism. This was how Moynihan was seen by liberals and conservatives alike (the hard-shell left, of course, has reviled him pretty steadily since the mid-sixties).

But over the past few years, two things happened. First, the postmodern academy took up the question of white liberals’ attitudes on race since the fifties and largely concluded that thinkers like Moynihan had ended up supporting the forces of reaction. Second, a new generation of more wisecracking journalists and pundits came along that had little use for the qualities Moynihan embodied – his courtliness, his traditionalist’s reverence for the institutions of government. To this generation, Moynihan seemed fusty, remote, carved from marble. And so the revisionism began.

The academy’s view of Moynihan, which is not unlike the hard left’s, has never been particularly fair – especially with respect to “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” his 1965 Labor Department study of black-family problems and what the government could do about them. The report, which is known by most people only for the phrase “tangle of pathology,” devoted vast sections to discussions of slavery, Reconstruction, urbanization, deindustrialization in the cities, and discrimination. These sections of the report were completely ignored in press reports.

If you still want to insist that he should have known better than to drag family structure into it, fine. But before you do so, read his 1967 defense of the report in Commentary, where he argued that he did it because he believed that the possibility of federal programs aimed at strengthening families would “enlist the support of the more conservative … centers of power in American life whose enthusiasm for class legislation is limited indeed.”

The ideological dichotomy the report expresses, relying on analyses that we would label both liberal and conservative, is symbolic of Moynihan’s whole career. He is a moving target, in very quirky and sometimes difficult-to-grasp respects. A liberal cold warrior in the old days, he was also one of the chief critics of the Central Intelligence Agency’s anti-democratic unaccountability and stealth. He pushed the idea of welfare reform for many years, even passing a mild (by current standards) bill in 1988; but when the climactic moment came, in 1996, he was one of welfare reform’s fiercest critics on Capitol Hill (he was criticized by many on the left for not doing enough to oppose the bill, but his legacy on the topic will be that his approach was both farsighted and comparatively humane). He is a great admirer of latter-day Tammany Hall and the unflinching party loyalty that was its mother’s milk. But he worked for Republicans and was among the first Democrats to denounce Bill Clinton when the Lewinsky story broke.

So Pat has been hard to pin down. And it’s true that the legislative notches in his belt may not match Teddy Kennedy’s, although they are not nearly as few as the recent conventional wisdom would have you think. There was the 1988 welfare bill. There was the $5 billion he got the federal government to pay back to New York, as it had promised to do some 35 years earlier, when the state paid to build the Thruway. There was the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, which, as Moynihan quite rightly puts it, “rewrote American transportation policy.” With that law, federal highway money could go not only to highways but to “any form of transportation that was most efficient” – commuter rail and light rail and subways, even. Getting that language changed was a good day’s work (there aren’t many subways in Mississippi). We might toss in the fact that he chaired the Finance Committee – the first New Yorker to do that since before the Civil War – when, against mighty opposition from the right, that committee sent to the floor Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget package, the one on which Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote, which helped spark the boom. And finally, assuming this new Penn Station happens, and it appears that it will, that’s all Moynihan. Throw in eighteen books, and I’d say that’s a life well spent.

So why the knocks? i think moynihan revisionism has less to do with the man himself than with the fact that the times changed furiously on him and left him looking like he belonged to another age. He says he’s not troubled by the dour assessments. “It makes my wife feel a lot more animated than I,” he says. He may be too idiosyncratic to satisfy any one ideological cluster. But in a time in which even Supreme Court justices have stooped to the most rancidly ideological strong-arm tactics, maybe Washington will miss someone who was rather less predictable. Besides that, he is serious, brilliant, intellectually curious, decent, polite, and civilized. George W. Bush’s Washington will surely be short on people like that.


Closing the Books