Thursday, January 13, 2011

Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his own words—A review of his letters

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) prided himself on correctly predicting the demise of the Soviet Union and for having served as a presidential appointee under four different presidents.   And he wasn't shy about letting people know about these accomplishments, referring to them numerous times in the voluminous letters he wrote during a half-century as a government official, university professor, Senator, and public intellectual.

In Daniel Patrick Moynihan:   A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, Steven R. Weisman chooses excerpts from several hundred letters to paint a portrait of Moynihan as the last of his kind:   working class kid from Hell's Kitchen with a father who abandoned the family when Moynihan was 10; stevedore who worked the lower Manhattan docks; Fulbright scholar at the London School of Economics; Labor Department official under Kennedy and Johnson; ambassador to India under Nixon; ambassador to the United Nations under Ford; four-term Democratic Senator from New York; devoted to the preservation of history buildings and the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In reading through Moynihan's writings, several things stand out.   First is the simple volume of letters he sent to everyone from the president and Cabinet secretaries to his dentist and the founder of Nordstrom's.   Second, in those letters, his use of flowery language both to flatter the recipient and to soften the sometimes harsh message (e.g., warning the incoming Clinton administration that focusing on health care was a mistake).   Third, his impressive ability to subtly tout his accomplishments without being unseemly or egotistical (e.g., his impressive Senate reelection vote totals even though he raised barely any money).   Fourth, was his decades-long disdain for the CIA for its failure to properly understand the Soviet Union and its obsession with classifying even inane documents as secret.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, was Moynihan's prescient ability to identify social policy decisions that would have disastrous long-term consequences.   The 1965 Moynihan Report, formally known as The Negro Family:   The Case for National Action, written while he was in the Johnson Labor Department, makes for a depressing read, both because of its detailed review of the perilous state of the black family and because the same report could be issued today with little changed.

The report viewed the breakdown of black families as being the main cause of unemployment, crime, poverty, and poor education.   To combat the issue, Moynihan recommended greatly increased hiring of black males— even if that meant displacing black females.   He also proposed family housing options, particularly in the suburbs so that middle class blacks could escape the self-reinforcing disaster of urban ghettos.

Moynihan's major criticism was that federal welfare policies were nothing more than surrogate family services which simply exacerbated the problem.   He advocated changes to the welfare system to encourage the stability of black family.   Yet when welfare reform was eventually proposed by Clinton in the mid-1990s, Moynihan adamantly opposed it, arguing that it would lead to huge increase in homelessness, particularly among children.

In the foreign policy realm, Moynihan was referred to as a "neoconservative", much to his annoyance.   He wrote numerous letters to editors at The New York Times and The Washington Post complaining that the label was coined by left-wing Democrats in the mid-1960s who used it as an epithet against any other Democrat who didn't view the country as having moved inextricably to the left.

Although Hillary Clinton succeeded Moynihan as New York Senator, his early introduction to the Clintons was unpleasant and clouded his relationship with them for years.   A Clinton administration official—rumored by some to have been Rahm Emanuel—was quoted by Time magazine soon after the inauguration saying the White House would "roll over" Moynihan if he didn't go along with their health care proposal.   When Moynihan protested directly to Clinton, the president professed his outrage and promised to fire the anonymous staffer.   But, as Moyihan complains in a memo to himself, no one was ever fired, nor were his warnings on the Clinton health care initiative followed.

The book closes with a final letter Moynihan wrote a few weeks before his death.   It simply and elegantly sums up his view of politics: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.   The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.   Thanks to this intersection, we're a better society in nearly all respects than we were."

This review was written by Helder Gil.   Find him on Twitter, @hgil.

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