Partly as a result of the laxity of the American school system, which hasn’t drilled a rigorous liberal-arts education into young people’s heads for several generations now, partly because the qualities that make for a successful politician have tended ever more toward the superficial, and partly because pols just don’t have the time these days, there is no longer any such thing as the philosopher-politician.
There are plenty of smart politicians. There are even a few who can pull out a timely quote from Chesterton, say, or Burke, or Pliny the Elder. And there is still, of course, Robert Byrd. But by and large, that stripe of politician is gone. It was, really, a nineteenth-century type, or even eighteenth-: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, the Adamses. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the modern-day epitome of that type. If he did nothing else, he showed us that even in our feverish age, it was possible to be both an intellectual and a politician, and to accomplish quite a lot in both guises.
People know far more about the intellectual Moynihan—that Moynihan got the press notices precisely because it was such a rarity to have a politician who not only read books but wrote them. Yet it’s worth remembering, too, the political Moynihan. He started out as a member of the Samuel J. Tilden Democratic Club. It was his home club, in the Gramercy Park area, where he lived at the time. This was the fifties. He had grown up in the city, but in the interim had gone off to the service, and to college, and then to the Fletcher School at Tufts and the London School of Economics. Now he was back, settling down and raising a family.
The Tilden club was “reform,” and in the 1954 gubernatorial campaign, the reformers were backing Franklin Roosevelt Jr. The regulars ran Averell Harriman, who had been the ambassador to the Soviet Union during the war. Harriman wasn’t much of a pol, but he had the big county machines, and became the nominee. Moynihan managed to latch on with the Harriman campaign and, when Harriman won, went to Albany as his assistant secretary.
“We didn’t have anybody else– anybody else big,” Pat Monynihan said of Hillary Clinton. “It’s Bobby Kennedy’s seat, for goodness’ sake!”
I’ve been told that he was a great cutup in those days. He used to do a very funny and very sophisticated routine in which he imitated an emcee at a Tammany Hall annual dinner, and he would deliver a dead-on monologue in which he was introducing the guests on the dais, moving from the Greek archbishop on the right over to the district leaders on the left.
Imitation is flattery, and flattery is born of respect and love. And that, too, was Moynihan: He respected and loved politics, especially the Democratic Party and the more heroic legacies of Tammany. When we spoke, the talk would often turn to Al Smith, the twenties governor and first Catholic candidate for president, or to Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member—Roosevelt’s Labor secretary and another Tammany product. He knew the most impossibly arcane details of their lives and careers, but what really came across was his affection for their achievements, his rueful wonderment at where that aspect of urban politics had gone. “We built the Bronx Whitestone Bridge in, what was it, twenty months,” he once told me in that slightly squeaky, staccato voice. “Imagine!”
When Hillary Clinton ran to succeed him, there was a lot of chatter that he and Liz, his wife, campaign manager, and amanuensis, were privately chafing at the prospect; the Clintons and Moynihan had not interacted merrily when Hillary’s health-care plan was before the Senate in 1994. But one Saturday morning after she won, he called me from his farm up near Oneonta (it wasn’t every day I looked down at the caller ID and saw moynihan, daniel patrick flashing up at me). We chatted, and finally I asked: Are you, you know, really happy with this result? “Oh, well, yes!” he said. “Look. We didn’t have anybody else, anybody else big. It’s Bobby Kennedy’s seat, for goodness’ sake!”
Announcing his passing, Hillary honored him on the Senate floor with a lengthy statement that went well beyond the usual political platitudes and described his many legacies. Some of those (of course she didn’t put it this way) are controversial, to be sure: The left interpreted his 1965 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” as blaming single-parenthood and illegitimate-birth rates for black Americans’ woes rather than racism or deindustrialization. It’s a funny—I guess—historical fact that this logic appeared nowhere in the report itself; rather, it was how Robert Novak and Rowland Evans wrote it up in their syndicated column. And it stuck.
But for every supposedly conservative legacy, there was a liberal one to answer. If the furtive power of the CIA and the national-security state is up your alley, check out his writings on that subject in a book called Secrecy and elsewhere. If federal funding for mass transit is your bag, consider that he got Congress in 1991 to agree that highway funds could be used for mass transit—think about the number of powerful senators from states where there’s virtually no mass transit, and imagine how hard it must have been to get that one through. All that, and eighteen books besides.
Surely the Irish in him would appreciate some Yeats to guide him out: “Savage indignation there / cannot lacerate his breast / Imitate him if you dare / World-besotted traveler; he / Served human liberty.” There won’t be another Pat.