A Man of Ideas in the Arena: Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1927-2003

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, April 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Man of Ideas in the Arena: Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1927-2003


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter

The voice was a dandified stutter-step of mumbled allusion and exaggerated enunciation. Yet if you listened hard enough, the erudite policy references and blustery historical detours cohered into a twinkly and often brilliant flash of insight. Like the finest professors and provocateurs, Pat Moynihan consistently frustrated the foolishly consistent. In midlife this made him a magnet for predictable resentments. But when he died last week, from an infection after his appendix burst, Moynihan was revered across party lines as a statesman in the mold of the Founders. Ideas have consequences, and this man of ideas was one of the most consequential figures of American public life.

Before his 24 years representing New York in the Senate, Moynihan had several other storied careers. He was raised from infancy in New York City, the son of a hard-drinking former newspaperman who abandoned his family when Pat was 10. His mother ran a saloon in Hell's Kitchen, and young Moynihan shined shoes in nearby Times Square, enlisted in the Navy and graduated from Tufts. At 28 he was a top aide to Gov. W. Averell Harriman in Albany, where he met and married Liz Brennan, without whose canny supervision his own later political career would have been impossible. By 1963 he was breaking through as a public personality, remarking after the Kennedy assassination: "I don't think there's any point in being Irish if you don't know the world is going to break your heart eventually."

From the start, Moynihan understood how to create sparks at the intersection of academia (he taught intermittently at Harvard) and policymaking (he served four presidents, from JFK to Gerald Ford). He championed auto safety years before Ralph Nader, and his first of 18 books, "Beyond the Melting Pot" (with Nathan Glazer), challenged the shibboleth that ethnicity was fading in America. At the Labor Department in 1965, he was savaged by liberals for breaking a taboo and presciently pointing out the growing crisis of single-parent black families. Later the critics pounced even harder when he used the term "benign neglect" in a memo to President Nixon on urban problems. Moynihan wasn't arguing for neglect of blacks; he just wanted a pause in the superheated racial rhetoric of the day. In fact, the failed plan he was hatching for Nixon called for a guaranteed annual income for the poor that looks extremely liberal by today's standards. …

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