Norman Podhoretz had done us all a service by pointing to the unvarying political content of the proclamation of impending doom. The person making such a statement is asking that power someone else has be given to him or her. — Daniel Patrick Moynihan in Coping.
On the last day Daniel Patrick Moynihan actively served his country as ambassador to the United Nations, I stepped onto the floor of the Security Council (for I thought that was what his secretary had instructed me to do), walked past the chattering Chinese delegation in their beautifully tailored uniforms of black and gray, planted myself some three yards distant from the Honorable DPM and waited to catch his eye. Moynihan was busy overwhelming the Somali ambassador with charm; now he had his arm around the dapper little man, now he was using both arms to make sweeping Wagnerian gestures. Moynihan roared away; the Somali smiled and nodded. When at last it was time for the session to start, Moynihan headed for his seat at the head of the big horseshoe table and I stepped into his path to introduce myself. He put on an expression of alarm. “I’ve got to get you out of here!” he said, taking me by the arm. “My God, I thought you were the Bulgarian!” He ushered me to one of the side entrances of the Council room. “See that guy across the way, standing in the door? That’s Mike Berlin of the New York Post, standing as close to the Security Council as he’s allowed to get.”
“Oh,” I said, “nobody told me.”
“No, no, no,” said Moynihan, jollying up. “That’s all right. You could pass for a Bulgarian.” He turned and looked back into the room. “Well, the Ethiopians have just come in so we’ll have to start. Maybe we could meet afterwards for a beer.” He began to back away. “I’m president of the Security Council, you know.”
I went up to the empty press section, took a seat and slipped on the headphones. The day’s debate concerned an incident on the border between French Somaliland and Somalia (the Somali Republic). Somali terrorists had seized a busload of French schoolchildren; the French authorities eventually called in sharpshooters to pick off the terrorists; now the Somali government was accusing the Frenchmen of picking off a large number of innocent Somalis as well. I followed the proceedings sporadically, since my mind was occupied with trying to decide just how insulting it was to be called a Bulgarian — probably some subtle professional variation on the common Polack joke.
The French ambassador was stating his case in a Comédie Française accent smooth as Mouton-Lafite, claiming that the legionnaires had opened fire only after a machine gun started firing from the Somali side of the border. I twiddled the dial and listened to him in Chinese. Moynihan, sprawled in his seat, yawned, drummed the desk with his pencil, yawned again. The representative from Somalia launched a counterattack in fractured English and handed out stacks of photographs taken at the scene of the skirmish. Moynihan riffled through his stack, threw up his arms and shook his head. Several minutes later, a UN guard tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a package. It was the photographs, with a note written in Moynihan’s own scrawl: “You are something of an authority on buses — herewith examples of those which ply the North East Coast of Africa.” It was Patrick, the Irish pol, missing not a trick and signaling that I should prepare to be charmed — for his allusion was to my book, The Boys on the Bus, which I had sent him as a calling card. The debate began to peter out and finally I heard Moynihan announce, “The luncheon hour has arrived with its magical effect upon the members.”
The ambassador led me through a pair of glass doors, around a corner, and we were in the Security Council bar, where so much of the really important business is conducted. He ordered two Heinekens and insisted on paying. “This is my bar,” he said. At 49 Moynihan was a whale of a man, heavier than I would have guessed, and his face was livid with broken veins of maroon and blue, like the threads in a dollar bill. He wore a charcoal gray Saville Row suit, cut square, with no vent and narrow lapels — the style went out about the time of Suez. As late as 1967, Moynihan was known to carry his handkerchief up his sleeve, in the English manner, but now he had his white shower carelessly planted in his breast pocket. His eyes were glazed, and bristling away on his upper lip, just off center, was a patch of hair that the razor had missed. He also gave off a distinct odor — pungent, gamy, not the odor of Dial. (“It is the height of anglophilia,” a Moynihan acquaintance later told me. “In imitation of the British aristocracy, he bathes infrequently.”)
“This is a very interesting situation,” said Moynihan, referring to the debate. I could not tell whether this was the first line of a lecture or the prelude to a quiz, so I thought it best not to take sides. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s right out of Rashomon.“
“No, no,” said Moynihan, “it’s very clear who’s right. Somalia is very clearly right.” He gave a flick of the wrist, motioning me away from two beer-drinking Africans. “Come here, move your stuff down to this end of the bar.” He lowered his voice. “As president of the Council, I’m supposed to maintain a position of absolute neutrality. Here,” he said, flipping through the pile of photographs until he found one of the besieged bus, “look at this.” I stared at it, as dumb as Watson. “Look,” he said, “this is the side of the bus facing the Somali side; there’s not a bullet hole in it!”
From that point on, the conversation strayed all over the map. Moynihan delivered an erudite-sounding lecture on the ironies of decolonization, discussed the virtues of the Irish writer Sean O’Faolain, demonstrated a statistical phenomenon known as “Moynihan’s scissors” (using a cocktail napkin as a blackboard), expounded on the architectural strengths of the General Assembly building and held forth on the more insidious propaganda techniques of Soviet anti-Semitism. It was a masterful performance — and yet I was relieved when he finally departed, because it was exhausting to watch him crank out the famous charm and flog his repertoire of stories once more around the track. At some point in Moynihan’s life, the charm must have been delightfully spontaneous, but now it was stale, forced and all too susceptible to analysis. It breaks down into three components. The first is a display of exaggerated good manners, a device often used by old-style Southern politicians. The second is a flaunting of arcane knowledge, which leaves the listener feeling dazzled, edified and cowed. Along with this goes the tacit suggestion that you, the listener, are one of the few people bright enough to grasp the complexities that Moynihan is unreeling. (“You are a smart fellow actually,” Moynihan said at one point, in a tone of surprised delight.)
Which brings us to the third and most important component of the Moynihan charm: flattery, pure and shameless. That the flattery is crudely obvious doesn’t matter. As George Bernard Shaw used to say: “What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering.”
In the course of his career, Pat Moynihan has found a great many men worth flattering, especially pundits, governors and presidents. He practiced the art of the bureaucrat-courtier through four successive administrations, gaining more power from each new president. The bureaucratic route to power suited him better than the electoral way, for he is an intellectual snob at heart and dislikes wasting his flattery on people he does not find interesting. The tedious process of building up an organization, sucking up to double-knit campaign contributors and dining on chicken with small-time politicos makes him crazy with boredom and goes against the sizable portion of his makeup that is manic, impulsive and lacking in self-control. He has a brutal flair for antagonizing potential supporters who rub him the wrong way, and a streak of perverse pride prompts him to hide certain incidents in his life which might help his image. (As a student at Tufts, he went out of his way to room with a black man whom his classmates refused to live with. Had he revealed this story, it might have softened the antagonism blacks feel toward him on account of his “benign neglect” memo — a 1970 memorandum to Richard Nixon which recommended “benign neglect” of the racial issue, but was widely misinterpreted as a suggestion to ignore the problems of blacks. The only people who know the roommate story are a few Tufts graduates; Moynihan has never told it to anyone, including his wife.)
Yet he is in many ways a natural-born politician, and one of his gifts is so rare and valuable that it nearly offsets his drawbacks. It is the gift of short-term prophecy. When he has had a few drinks, he sometimes brags to his Harvard colleagues that he has a terrific ability to identify a going issue. This may be one of his few understatements. He has spotted many a hot issue — from auto safety to welfare reform — while it was still on the horizon of public consciousness. He has an uncanny sense of precisely what is going to worry people next. Just over a year ago he caught on to a monster of an issue, one so big and bullying that it eventually took over his life and pushed him into politics — the Red/Third World Menace.
The first time he broached this issue, in a Commentary article called “The United States in Opposition,” Moynihan didn’t seem to realize exactly what he had stumbled onto. (This was a year ago last March, when he had just returned from a two-year stint as ambassador to India.) The article said that the Third World nations were wrong when they attacked America for being greedy, exploitative and imperialistic. If all these African and Asian countries were poor, said Moynihan, it was their own fault, because their leaders had insisted on following the tenets of Fabian socialism, as taught at the London School of Economics. With their socialist economies in ruins, the Third World countries were turning against the West and becoming increasingly totalitarian. It was time for the United States to stand up and defend itself, said Moynihan; it was time to sing the praises of capitalist efficiency and liberal democracy.
This analysis was not particularly accurate, but with Third World communism about to humiliate the United States in both Vietnam and Cambodia, Henry Kissinger was so desperately grateful for Moynihan’s feisty voice that he told Gerald Ford to make him our next ambassador to the United Nations. The appointment was handled with dispatch — and Moynihan was sworn in on June 30th, 1975. That very night he attended an AFL-CIO banquet where Alexander Solzhenitsyn let go with an impassioned denunciation of Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente. “There is evil now in the Soviet Union,” said Solzhenitsyn, “and tremendous waves of hatred are flowing from there across the world, and we have to stand up to it — not give in to it.” Henry Kissinger told Gerald Ford not to go to this speech, and he barred all State Department officials from attending. Which did not stop Moynihan, the State Department’s newest official, from sitting at the head table. His nose told him that Kissinger was stuck with a dying policy, while Solzhenitsyn was the voice of the future.
The Solzhenitsyn diatribe was nothing less than an historic event, for it flashed the word to cold warriors that it was finally safe to come out of the bunker. And out they came. The myth of the communist monolith, discredited in the Sixties, made an overnight comeback. The Solzhenitsyn line had an instant appeal to all kinds of groups — to thousands of Americans who still resented our defeat in Vietnam; to trade union leaders who wished to see billions spent on defense factories; to large numbers of American Jews who hated Soviet anti-Semitism and feared the Soviet presence in the Middle East.
None of this was lost on Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He quietly dropped his attack on the Fabian socialists, who could not be accused of anything more serious than economic inefficiency, and started to utter loud cries of alarm against the much sexier threat of “… communist arms, communist intrigue, communist treachery in Asia and Africa.” Using the UN as his platform, Moynihan quickly became the most vocal and best-publicized anti-communist in the country. His basic text was pure Solzhenitsyn, but he improved on it by adding the threat of Third World totalitarianism to that of Soviet domination.
It would be unfair to say that Moynihan was totally opportunistic in jumping on the anti-Red issue, for he did not develop this attitude suddenly. There has often been a hard-line anticommunist bias in his writings and public statements, although it used to be less melodramatic than it is now. In his first major piece of writing, the lengthy chapter on the New York Irish which he contributed to Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), he noted regretfully that after the McCarthy era “the Irish had little to contribute” to the problem of “what to do about communist aggression abroad” and that “the principal area of foreign affairs in which Irish Catholics have so far played a creative anticommunist role has been in the international labor movement under the leadership of an Irish plumber from the Bronx, George Meany of the AFL-CIO …”
Moynihan has an Irish workingman’s enthusiasm for big labor, an attitude which probably goes back to the time when the International Longshoreman’s Association gave him a job on the docks. In 1963, when the Department of Labor sent him to mediate a dispute between the Negro Labor Council and the New York Plumbers Union (AFL-CIO), Moynihan shocked some of his liberal friends by displaying wholehearted sympathy for the union over the two blacks and the Puerto Rican who were fighting to gain membership. So it is not surprising that he embraced George Meany’s stand on communism.
The first time I caught Moynihan’s anticommunist act in public was in January 1976, when he was the featured speaker for the black-tie, patent pumped, wing-collared crowd of Morgan Guaranty types who came out for the annual dinner at the New York Harvard Club. Came out in droves — the affair was sold out twice over because everybody wanted to see Moynihan.
He stood at the front of the dark-paneled, balconied dining hall, a room reminiscent of the House of Commons, and shyly pushed back his forelock. He began speaking with the hesitancy affected by Harvard people — the uhs and stumbles are meant to indicate a humble groping for truth. After some academic gibberish about the meaning of the word “détente,” he went on to describe the three influences which retard “our responses to communist aggression.” The first was a “failure of nerve within the American elites” who got us into Vietnam and then came to grief over that policy. The second was the “superior capacity of Marxist argument to induce guilt” and to seduce us into the mistaken belief that America had exploited the poor countries of the world. The third was the “long-term ideological drift away from liberal democracy” — the decline of the West. This last section of the speech was stunningly depressing, but it turned out to be only a setup for the grand finale.
“Out of the decline of the West, there will, I sense, emerge a rise in spirits,” said Moynihan, his voice growing stronger. “We have shortened our lines. We are under attack. There is nothing in the least in the culture that suggests we will not in the end defend ourselves successfully.”
Now this was not a great speech, at least not to read. Whole sections of it were vague, turgid or even incomprehensible. But the performance was extraordinary. Moynihan has an uncanny talent possessed by no American politician currently on the hustings: he has the ability to project a mood. It is a very specific mood — a kind of London-before-the-blitz feeling combined with the inspired desperation of King Henry’s St. Crispin Day pep talk. He is the poet of the twilight, of the American Götterdämmerung, and his words had an amazing effect on the Harvard Club audience. They went wild, in their own restrained way. Which was strange, because many of them were Wall Street heavies and ought to have been for détente (which enables them to sell American technology to the vast markets provided by the Russians and the Chinese). But they stood and clapped wildly for the speech. The sight of intelligent people applauding ideas that went directly against their own best interests convinced me on the spot that Moynihan had a great future as a politician.
From that moment on, I took seriously the rumor that Moynihan might run for Senate, first in the Democratic primary (September 14th) and then against the conservative Republican incumbent, James Buckley.
So did a number of his friends. At just about this time in January, they started hounding him to enter the race. In this year of political years, when the Democrats seemed certain to take back the White House, their old amigo Moynihan had suddenly established himself as a genuine culture hero. He got 20,000 fan letters every month, and he was the only fresh face in the whole battered legion of cold warriors. So they were all in a frenzy to get a piece of his golden political future. His pals among the Commentary set pleaded, his cronies in the labor movement cajoled and a man who had worked for him in Nixon’s White House flew up from Washington to lay on a game plan for victory. Six more years! But, like many a politician before him, Moynihan could see only the risks. He hesitated.
The day after our chat in the Security Council bar, I saw Moynihan again. The plan was for me to meet him at the United States mission at 11, fly to Boston on the noon flight and lunch with him in Cambridge. But it was not until 11:29 that Moynihan came charging out of the elevator, shouting “Let’s go!,” looking every bit as manic as an RAF ace running for his Spitfire.
We were going up to Harvard, where Moynihan was to teach his class on “Ethnicity in Politics.” Like politicians who retreat to their law practices in times of adversity, Moynihan used Harvard as a base camp, a place from which he could reconnoiter, sniff out new trends and prepare fresh forays into the public arena. The title of Harvard professor was an invaluable asset in government, for it impressed people and allowed Moynihan to argue positions with an air of scholarly objectivity.
I remembered that back in ’71, after Moynihan bowed out of the White House with a final fulsome valedictory to the Chief, he had returned to a distinctly chilly reception from his old colleagues. As punishment for collaborating with the Nixon regime, he was banished to a moldy little office in the attic of a ramshackle frame house on Garden Street, a long walk from the Faculty Club. Humiliation on humiliation, Moynihan did not even have a berth on the faculty of the College; he was merely a professor in the low-status Graduate School of Education. It was like belonging to the Elks when all your friends are in the Jockey Club.
Moynihan didn’t remember it that way. True, his quarters were squalid, he said, “but in that dirty little building I was given a full-time secretary, which is because I was interested in education and they will do that for you.” Then, at the end of the year, he was “made, chosen, brought into” the College faculty as a professor of government. An unusual honor, he assured me.
Like so many of Moynihan’s statements, this one turned out to be not entirely false. What he stinted was the flavor, the essential spirit, of the truth. Far from being “chosen,” like one of God’s elect, to join the government department, Moynihan started campaigning for the job almost as soon as he hit Cambridge. During the spring of ’71, he busily floated the rumor that Cornell was offering him a prestigious and munificently endowed chair. Meanwhile, his friend and ally, James Q. “Lock-Up” Wilson* (prominent neoconservative and then chairman of the government department) spread the word that Moynihan felt like a “second-class citizen” and would certainly go off to Ithaca unless Harvard made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. This worked pretty well until the Harvard Crimson reported that Cornell had long since withdrawn its offer to Moynihan because of furious opposition from the college’s black community. Undaunted, Wilson kept on plugging Moynihan, assuring his skeptical colleagues that Moynihan’s work-in-progress on the Family Assistance Plan was going to be “the last word” on executive-legislative relations. A tenure vote was taken, and Moynihan lost badly. Wilson’s next step was to round up some funds so that the government department wouldn’t have to pay Moynihan’s salary out of its own endowment. Then he took a good many of the members of the department out to lunch, one by one, calling in old favors, handing out a few IOUs and generally acting like a party whip corralling a vote for some desperately tight piece of legislation. When the vote was taken again, Moynihan had the necessary majority.
*So called by the few radicals left on campus because his most recent book advocates the liberal use of jail as a deterrent to crime.
The taxi from the airport dropped us at the bottom of the little rise that leads up to the Harvard Faculty Club, where Moynihan had offered to take me to lunch, and as we walked up the sidewalk past the flowering lilac trees, Moynihan kept taking in deep breaths of fresh air and exclaiming, “God, what a beautiful day!” Climbing the short flight of stone steps that leads up to the front door of the club, we passed a sight so familiar that I barely noticed it — a racing bicycle chained to a steel bike stand. The first thing I had done when I arrived in Cambridge in 1964 was to buy myself a bicycle lock, and I had always assumed, without really thinking about it, that the townies had been stealing bikes since the days of William James, if not before.
Moynihan had slowed down his pace and was pointing to the chained up Peugeot. “There,” he declared, “is a sign of a culture that has ceased to defend itself!” It took me a moment to catch up with his cosmic leap from bicycle thievery to the decline of the West, but when I realized what he was getting at, I said, “How is the culture supposed to defend itself when it’s inside having lunch?”
“You get someone to stand outside on guard,” said Moynihan, sounding annoyed that he had to explain all the details. “You put up a fight.“
There was no time to get into other techniques of defending the culture, because we were already inside the Faculty Club, and some young associate professor had come up to tell Moynihan what a wonderful job he had done in the UN. I started into the austere Yankee dining room and glimpsed one of my old professors, a pompous, gouty “character” who had not been quite right for the last 40 years, not since a discerning mule gave him a swift kick in the balls. The scabrous old gelding was in the process of devouring a large portion of the club specialty — horsemeat steak — and one look at him brought on a rush of horror and disgust as I remembered what it was like to be at the mercy of the Harvard faculty — which is, with a few wonderful exceptions, the meanest, most arrogant, most vindictive collection of petty tyrants and backstabbers in the Western Hemisphere.
When Moynihan entered, there was a subdued flurry of nodding, waving and dignified hallooing from his colleagues, to which he responded in kind. As soon as we sat down, Moynihan indicated that I should can the tape recorder. “Use this,” he said, pointing to his temple. “You should learn to use this.” This may have been a display of his pedagogic technique, but more likely he was afraid that if some of his colleagues got the idea that he was using the hallowed precincts of the Faculty Club to hold a press conference, they would order him seized and taken to the ducking stool. The waitress came over and he ordered salad and two beers. Then he delivered one of his favorite lectures, the Decline of Harvard Architecture since 1865, mentioning along the way that he had been the architect of the federal architecture policy under Kennedy. I said I didn’t know the federal government had an architectural policy and Moynihan replied, “They didn’t, but I gave them one.”
Once the beer and the salad arrived, I asked Moynihan why, with his working-class background, he had opted for the academic life rather than going into one of the professions where he could have made a lot of money.
“I’ve made a lot of money,” said Moynihan.
“I mean a lot of money.”
Moynihan threw me a baleful look and I could see what was coming. “That’s not how it works,” he said. “You do not seem to know how it works. Someone from the working class aspires to be well-off, not enormously wealthy.” There was no stopping it now. We were going to have a poor-off. The curse of any good left-liberal, such as myself, is to feel that there is something weak, soft and essentially shameful about being rich. To expect Moynihan not to play on this was like expecting a vampire to walk past a blood bank. Like the Marxists, he has a “superior capacity to induce guilt.”
“What sort of background do you come from?” he asked.
“Upper middle class,” I said, trying to get it over with fast.
“Aaaaaahh,” said Moynihan, drawing himself up. “A rich Harvard kid. Or as we used to say where I came from, a rich college fuck.”
I do not pretend to remember everything that Moynihan said that afternoon at the Faculty Club, but certain statements etched themselves on my brain, and I wrote them in my notebook within the hour. I remember bringing up an 11-year-old Village Voice article in which Moynihan was quoted as decrying the existence of an “international communist conspiracy.” Moynihan denied ever having said such a thing, so I pulled out the piece to show him. Then he said that he could have said it, because he thought it was true, but he didn’t say it. “Are you sensitive enough to follow this?” he asked, peering at me over his half-glasses. I’m not sure that I was. He said that the Village Voice was a “trendy, millionaire, rich-college-fuck magazine” and naturally it enjoyed portraying an Irish Catholic regular Democrat like himself as a witch hunter bent on purging antipoverty programs of communists. He had never done anything of the kind, but the Village Voice lied about him and said that he had. He got so worked up about the lies that the Village Voice told about him that I was very surprised when he brought up the subject a month later to say he remembered now that the article itself hadn’t lied about him, it was just the headline.
He had started telling me about the prejudice that liberals used to show toward Catholics when he suddenly realized that he was on the point of being late for his lecture. We quickly walked the short distance to Sever Hall, only to find a note announcing that his class had been moved to Robinson 106. Neither of us being quite sure where Robinson was, Moynihan approached a couple of black students and said, “You look like two bright fellows. Do you know where Robinson is?” It was right next door, and as we parted, I offered to pay for lunch. “No,” he said, “you got the taxi.” And then, as he rushed off to his lecture, he added: “Become a member of the Harvard faculty, then you can take me to lunch.”
It is possible that Pat Moynihan got his political magnetism from his father and his ambition from his mother. John Moynihan was a tall, red-haired, well-read newspaperman from Jeffersonville, Indiana, and his best friend on this earth was H. Allen Smith (who later made a name for himself as one of the country’s sharpest and most graceful humorists). “John and I were Hoosier sybarites,” Smith wrote of his early years with Moynihan.
John Moynihan soon displayed early symptoms of chronic wanderlust, moving from one newspaper to the next, often sending for Smith to join him. In the mid-1920s, each man took a wife; Moynihan married Margaret Phipps, the sharp-tongued daughter of a successful Indiana trial attorney. Moynihan sired three children who tended to interfere with his lifestyle. On March 17th, 1927, he became the father of Daniel Patrick Aloysius Moynihan, who was soon followed by Michael Moynihan (now a New York public relations man with an office a block from the Plaza Hotel) and Ellen Moynihan (now a divorced housewife living in Arlington, Virginia).
Six months after Pat was born, the family moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to New York, where Joseph Kennedy Sr. had hired John Moynihan to write publicity for RKO at $15 a week. Soon he was making better money, and the family lived a comfortable, quasi-suburban existence first in New Jersey and then in Crystal Gardens, a middle-class section of Astoria. But the marriage slowly disintegrated. With his taste for drink and horses, John Moynihan did not get along with his demanding wife and chafed at the responsibilities of supporting a family; eventually he moved out of the house. One day when Pat was 11, John Moynihan vanished — moved on and left no forwarding address. Pat never laid eyes on his father again.
With the departure of the breadwinner, the family suddenly plunged from the middle to the lower class. They were forced to live in a series of cold-water flats in Yorkville and on the Upper West Side, moving frequently to take advantage of the month’s free rent that landlords offered to new tenants. At first, they were on welfare (a revolutionary social service provided by the New Deal for fatherless families; Pat Moynihan would live to see it become a system that made families fatherless). Then Margaret Moynihan took a grim and exhausting job teaching English in the Women’s House of Detention, while both boys shined shoes in Times Square. His brother Mike remembers an afternoon when he could find no customers; coming home without even a dime to buy milk for supper, he sat on the floor and cried.
This period, when the family literally did not know where the next meal was coming from, lasted only three or four years. Around the time Pat entered high school, his mother married a man with some money, and the family moved to the green pastures of rural Kitchawan, in Westchester County. When that marriage fell apart, she took her children to live with relatives back in Indiana (where the boys sometimes worked as golf caddies). At this point in his life, Pat was something of a loner, and spent much of his time reading. At 15, he was a flaming New Deal liberal, devoted to The New Republic, P.M. and the works of Thomas Wolfe.
By the time the family returned to New York, the war had started and the worst of the Depression was over. Margaret Moynihan got a good job as chief nurse in a munitions plant, and they lived once again in Astoria. When the war ended, she borrowed $10,000 from a distant relation and bought a saloon on West 42nd Street, on the northern boundary of the slum known as Hell’s Kitchen. Pat and Mike tended bar off and on there while going to college. Once, when Pat was at Tufts, his mother got sick and he took three months off to run the bar, still managing to end up as class valedictorian.
Later on, Pat Moynihan would select one brief episode from his preadolescence, combine it with another brief phase from his college years and construct an American myth. It was the story of a spunky and extraordinarily bright shoeshine boy from Hell’s Kitchen who grows up to become a gentleman. No mention is ever made of Astoria, Westchester or Indiana, which would spoil the story. The tale is true insofar as it suggests that he was not a rich kid, that he suffered a number of psychological blows and that he often had to work hard as a child. It is a lie insofar as it suggests that he was born into the lower classes and was sympathetic to their plight. In reality, he passed among them as a lonely, frightened and often horrified observer.
The terrors of Pat Moynihan’s poverty were Dickensian — which is to say, they were quite real while they lasted but were also magnified to nightmare proportions by the shock of falling into a world where few things seemed secure or familiar. “You hadn’t always been poor,” says Michael Moynihan, “and that made it worse.” Pat had to deal with the shame of not having a father, with cockroaches, bad smells, strange accents, meatless dinners, cold baths and constant anxieties. The tough kids in his neighborhood used to beat him up on his way home and steal the money he earned shining shoes. What a mean way to learn the distinctions of class! It was the first time he got to know poor people intimately; no wonder he didn’t much like them.
Once Moynihan got out of the bad neighborhoods, he never went back. Even when he established himself as the nation’s best-known expert on urban poverty, he got his information by sitting in an office and perusing government statistics — which is why a good many sociologists view his work with suspicion or scorn. Never did he spend any time in the ghetto, looking poor blacks in the eye, listening to their doubt and anger.
Pat Moynihan began his education in Catholic schools run by the conservative Christian Brothers, attended public junior high schools and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School, which he now describes as having been “the worst academic high school in New York City.” His best friend from that era, Robert Tannenbaum (now a professor of ancient history) agrees with him, claiming that Franklin was the city’s lowest-ranking high school in all categories but two: “One was basketball and the other was juvenile delinquency.”
This characterization contains some truth, yet it ignores the fact that Franklin was a relatively progressive school for its time. It was located in East Harlem, and 60% of the students were Italian — so thoroughly Italian that they held a victory celebration the day the Moors conquered Ethiopia. The others were mainly blacks (who tended to identify with the Ethiopians). On many a warm night, blacks and Italians went at each other with bottles. Into this tense racial situation stepped Leonard “Pop” Cavello, an educational reformer of some note. Cavello’s first goal was to restore peace by giving both groups some pride, by taking away their feeling that school was a place for failure. Did the Italians flunk English? He offered them a course in Italian, so they could take home at least one A. Were the blacks strong in basketball? He got them one of the best coaches in the country so they could have a championship team.
Cavello insisted on hiring the most resourceful teachers available, and the faculty was good enough to keep the interest of a bright Irish kid. Yet Pat’s remarks about the school have a strangely ungrateful tone. Of Cavello’s hard-working faculty, he has said to friends: “They were communists! And communists are elitists. They took six or seven of us who showed promise and made us elitists.” There were communists on the faculty, but only one or two; and by general consensus they were excellent teachers who took pains to encourage a few of the brighter and more ambitious kids, nothing more.
As for becoming an elitist, Pat needed no encouragement from communists. He was getting some prodding at home. “His mother had an often-stated desire to see him become a United States senator,” says his friend Tannenbaum. Moynihan was first in his class, president of the honor society, and was elected most popular student in the senior poll (although one of the class’s black graduates, a New York state senator, swears that he never heard of Pat Moynihan until 20 years later, which makes one wonder how the vote was taken).
In matters scholastic, Moynihan may well have felt superior to most of his black and Italian classmates. At any rate he seems to have carried certain feelings of superiority into later life, where they occasionally pop out and embarrass him. In 1965, he would reply to Paul Rao, an Italian politician, who accused him of being anti-Italian: “I was a stevedore on the North River docks before Mr. Rao bought his first jar of hair pomade, and if he thinks he can run me out of my town, he’s nuts.”
Even though I was first in my class,” Moynihan would later tell The New York Times, “I never even considered going to college — that was something for rich kids. Anyhow, the only college I’d heard of was Notre Dame, because of their football team.” Never heard of any college but Notre Dame? Tannenbaum was going to Yale in the fall.
“So after I got out of high school, I went to work as a longshoreman on the Hudson River railroad docks.” True, both Moynihan and Tannenbaum did get summer jobs as longshoremen on Erie Railroad pier 48. Or rather, Tannenbaum got a job as longshoreman while Moynihan quickly graduated to the cushy post of part-time checker (i.e., he checked off goods on a manifest as they were loaded onto a barge). Moynihan used to tell his friends how this happened: “When I first got on the docks, I had been there three weeks when a checker’s job opened up. The hiring boss’s name was Packy, and the guy next in line for the job was a colored guy. Packy said: ‘I’ve been on this pier for 40 years, and I will die before I see a nigger with a pencil. Moynihan, you’re the checker.’ ”
Murray Kempton, the writer, recalls hearing Moynihan tell this story to large groups of friends at least twice in the early Sixties. “It used to be a standard anecdote of his childhood,” says Kempton, “but he’s dropped it recently. Now he’s got himself going in to take his examination for City College with his long shoreman’s hook in his pocket.” (“A friend told me about the qualifying examination for City College,” Moynihan told the Times, “and mainly to prove to myself that I was as smart as I thought I was, I went up and took the test. I remember playing it very tough — I swaggered into the test room with my longshoreman’s loading hook sticking out of my back pocket. I wasn’t going to be mistaken for any sissy college kid.”) “I suppose as a checker he had to borrow the longshoreman’s hook,” says Kempton.
Moynihan went to City College for a year, and then joined the Navy’s V-12 officers candidate program, a move that changed his life. Until this time, Moynihan had identified with his Tulsa background, was an avid student of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, and even spoke with a slight Southern accent. (Some of the black longshoremen called him “the Oklahoma Kid.”) But when the Navy sent him to Middlebury College in Vermont (and later to Tufts, outside Boston), he was thrown in with a large number of rich men from Andover and Deerfield, and contracted a violent case of class envy. His vocabulary, his jokes, his dress all changed within a year. His accent was transformed into the modified prep school drawl which he still affects today. And he conceived the ambition to become a Harvard professor.
Pat Moynihan had discovered the Establishment and he never wanted to leave it. After finishing his service in the Navy and getting an M.A. at the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, he went to England on a Fulbright and the GI Bill to take off the last of his rough edges. In London, Pat went native, acquiring a bowler hat and a furled umbrella. He learned the lingo of snobbism. “Port, sir, is a Tory drink; claret is the drink of Whigs.” That sort of thing.
Nearly everybody who knew Pat during the Fifties and early Sixties remembers him as the jolliest, humblest, most self-effacing, wittiest, most whimsical fellow they ever met — a bouncing encyclopedia of arcane historical fact, literary reference and political lore. Wherever he worked — as speechwriter to mayoral candidate Robert Wagner, as publicity man for the International Rescue Committee or as Governor Averell Harriman’s assistant to the secretary — he played the poet at the board meeting, and was loved for it. His wife, the former Elizabeth Brennan, whom he met in Harriman’s office, says that she married him because he was the funniest man she had ever known.
When he was working for the International Rescue Committee (which aided refugees from totalitarian regimes), he lived on 14th Street and hung out at the White Horse Tavern with the rapidly self-destructing Dylan Thomas. Frequently, he would come in to the office and regale his colleagues with tales of Dylan.
Being as insecure as any parvenu, he was hungry for approval and his appetite kept growing. In public life, there are only two kinds of truly satisfying approval: that of men more powerful than yourself and that of the press. Moynihan had long since realized that he could never go wrong by telling the powerful what they wanted to hear. In 1961, while he was supposed to be writing an official history of the Harriman administration, he produced an essay for Commentary called “Bosses and Reformers,” into which he slipped his credo: “… there is a high content of honor in American politics — most politicians, if they only knew it, have a right to feel morally superior to their constituencies….” A man who could write these words was someone from whom American politicians would want to hear more. But how to make himself heard, that was the question. Later in 1961, Arthur Goldberg, hearing of Moynihan’s brilliance from a mutual friend, had him recruited for the Labor Department. Moynihan became special assistant to the secretary of labor, but was still barely within shouting distance of the throne.
Arriving in Washington, he quickly began to cultivate the most interesting and influential members of the liberal press, including Mary McGrory, Joseph Kraft, Richard Strout (TRB of The New Republic) and Paul Niven of CBS. He became close to many of these opinion-makers, and they became his claque, praising him by word of mouth if not in the media. He also gained a reputation as one of the most prolific leaks in the bureaucracy.
In 1971, having just left the Nixon administration, Moynihan would write an attack on the press in which he accused bureaucratic leakers of “disloyalty to the presidency.” “Too much do they traffic in stolen goods,” he wrote, “and they know it.” By that time Moynihan had been on the business end of a leak himself; someone had done him in by slipping the “benign neglect” memo to The New York Times. The resulting flap had a devastating effect on him, for he could never stand criticism in the press. One thing to be said for Moynihan’s fellow neoconservatives (Daniel Bell, James Q. Wilson, Seymour Martin Lipset, et al.) is that they have an abiding respect for ideas, and are almost always willing to debate their critics in any publication, however small. Moynihan prefers to silence his attackers. Over the years he has unsuccessfully lobbied for the suppression of unfavorable articles in such scholarly publications as Christianity and Crisis and Daedalus, and in recent months he has set a kind of record for complaining phone calls to the publisher of The New York Times. A highly reliable source on the outskirts of the Nixon administration remembers stumbling into Moynihan’s office one evening after Pat had received some unfavorable mention in the public prints. “There he was, six feet six inches of slobbering Irishman, stretched out on his sofa and sobbing, ‘They’re killing me, they’re killing me!’ But you see, a good press is his raison d’etre.”
The death of Kennedy tore him apart, yet even in his grief he managed to hold onto his gift for turning adversity into publicity. Going on a TV program, he said, “I don’t suppose there is any point in being Irish if you don’t know the world is going to break your heart eventually” — a remark which instantly and forever linked his name to the legend of the Kennedys. That same weekend he was seized by a premonition and went around telling every available official that the federal government had to get Oswald into custody before he was shot by some crazy Texan. But no one would listen. “And so I failed,” he later wrote, “and at some cost. I was never thereafter quite trusted by the new administration. This sank in and at length I left.”
Actually, he adjusted quite nicely to the new administration, after an initial burst of Kennedy loyalism. “The day Kennedy was buried, Pat and I were standing outside the cathedral watching the procession,” Murray Kempton remembers. “Pat turned to me and said, ‘Did you see who was the first man to rush over and shake Johnson’s hand when he got off of Air Force One? Arthur Schlesinger, that whore!’ The next time I saw Pat, he was telling me he had had the exciting experience of being congratulated by Johnson on the operation of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He had made the change to a Johnsonian Democrat. And Arthur Schlesinger, otherwise known as ‘that whore,’ resigned from the White House as soon as he could and left to join the guerrilla band of Kennedys in the hills.”
In November of 1964, Moynihan woke up at four one morning and decided that he had to write a report on the Negro family, “to explain to the fellows how there was a problem more difficult than they knew and also to explain some of the issues of unemployment and housing in terms that would be new enough and shocking enough that they would say, ‘Well, we can’t let this sort of thing go on….’ ” Nearly everybody in Washington with half a brain had already begun to realize that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the problem was no longer so much to guarantee legal equality for blacks as to make sure they had social and economic equality as well. But Moynihan took the unusual and even reckless step (for a high-level bureaucrat) of putting together a report which did nothing but point out the severity of the situation. In early 1965, he and his assistants researched and wrote a 78-page document which concluded that Negroes were falling behind other ethnic groups at a disastrous rate, and that the main cause of this disaster was the ongoing deterioration of Negro families, the father being absent in two out of every five. One hundred copies of the report were printed up for distribution within the government, Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz wrote a cover letter recommending its contents, and it was sent off to the White House.
Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson decided to announce a White House conference on civil rights that would “help the American Negro fulfill the rights which … he is finally about to secure.” The logical occasion for this announcement was the commencement address Johnson was scheduled to deliver at the predominantly black Howard University in Washington on June 4th.
Moynihan has since claimed that his report “set the theme” for this speech and that he actually wrote it, or at least the first draft. This is disputed by Johnson’s speech writer, Richard Goodwin, who swears that he wrote the speech, all by himself, in one manic session the night before it was given. Goodwin says he gave the Negro Family Report only a hasty skimming.
The same day the speech was made, Moynihan flew off to Yugoslavia for a conference on multiethnic societies. He returned at the end of June to find that the Howard University speech was generally considered the zenith of the Johnson presidency — and that virtually no one seemed to know that the whole thing was the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. On July 18th he quit the Johnson administration to enter the Democratic primary for president of the New York City Council. The very next day The New York Times carried the first substantive story on the Negro Family Report. Three days later, the Labor Department released the report to the public.
In August, Newsweek did a long takeout on the report, and there was renewed interest later in the month when Watts exploded — it seemed to explain the phenomenon of black riots. On August 18th Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote a widely syndicated column claiming that the Moynihan Report (as they called it) had been suppressed by Secretary of Labor Wirtz and had then been leaked over Wirtz’s head to the White House, where presidential advisers found it “fascinating.” “This produced President Johnson’s moving June 4th commencement address …,” they wrote, and also the idea for the White House conference. Now neither the White House nor the Labor Department would have had any reason to invent or circulate such a twisted fable; only one man in America might have benefited from feeding the press such nonsense, and he was waging an uphill fight in the city of New York. If Moynihan actually did peddle this tale, the strategy backfired. For it was only after the Moynihan Report was depicted as a secret document (i.e., so inflammatory that whitey was afraid to show it to the blacks), that the civil rights leaders thought to attack it.
Not that the attacks were very wild. Only one or two even approached the suggestion that Moynihan was a racist. The most frequent criticism of the report was that it overlooked the problem of racial discrimination and placed the blame for the blacks’ deprivations on the blacks themselves. One black leader felt that the report did not do justice to the toughness of black families, that what it really described was the way in which Irish families disintegrated when the father was absent.
Bayard Rustin, the black socialist, merely suggested that Moynihan had “exaggerated the negative” and had “posed as a great scholar of the Negro family” when he was not. (But not to be totally with Daniel Patrick Moynihan is to be completely against him. Which calls for total retaliation. Two years later, when Rustin came to Harvard as a visiting scholar, Moynihan refused to go to any meetings which he attended. In private, he joked about “Bayard’s little boys,” implying that Rustin was homosexual.)
The controversy over the Moynihan Report became a divisive issue at the White House conference in November and helped lead to its failure (although the conference was not in any case destined to generate sweetness and light; the civil rights leaders had already figured out that Johnson had decided to invest in Vietnam rather than black equality). But it gave Moynihan a chance to mount his first great flamboyant defense. He defended himself onto the front pages, into the news magazines and finally onto Meet the Press. He had arrived as a national figure.
He had also suffered overwhelming defeat in the New York Democratic primary (partly because he insisted on spending more time with newspaper and TV reporters than with the people). To allow his wounds to heal, he spent a year as a fellow at Wesleyan University, and then accepted an offer to head the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies. This was not a move away from the center of the action, for it was the era of the long hot summers, and the cities were blowing up with a regularity that bewildered scholars, journalists and politicians. There was an obvious need for an articulate former slum dweller who could explain the plight of the urban poor, in a responsible sort of way, to the ruling class. Moynihan filled the bill. A few years earlier, Moynihan had phoned his mother with the glad tidings that Time magazine was going to review Beyond the Melting Pot, and would include a photograph of him. “On the cover?” snapped Margaret Moynihan. Finally, on July 28th, 1967, Moynihan’s features graced the cover of Time — not a photograph, but a handsome Chaliapin portrait. Describing Moynihan as “the most controversial of urban-affairs analysts,” the cover story brought forth the Hell’s Kitchen/longshoreman saga in all its glory and firmly implanted it in the national consciousness. Moynihan had become the first tribune of the poor.
There was, however, some competition for the title. The 1960s somehow produced a spate of rich college fucks with active social consciences (not to mention the legions of militant browns and blacks). No sooner had Moynihan donned his tribunitial robes than he had to face a whole army of people who threatened not only to push him off his turf, but to make him irrelevant. The world was being overrun by social scientists whose specialty was the poor, and by packs of activists who were actually doing something about poverty.
Thus menaced, Moynihan began to back off toward the right. In September 1967, he lobbed a bombshell of a speech into that bastion of liberalism, the national board of the Americans for Democratic Action. Though the speech contained some excellent ideas (such as the notion that the cities of the nation should not be run by agencies in Washington), its central proposition was that the liberals should concern themselves with the “stability of the social order” and should therefore make “much more effective alliances with political conservatives.” Republicans, Moynihan was saying, were not so bad. Several months later, Moynihan began writing Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, a critique of one of the antipoverty programs that he himself had helped to design, whose purpose was to give the poor maximum feasible participation in their own salvation. Moynihan managed to blame the program’s failures on social scientists, activists and the poor themselves. But even before the book came out, he retreated to the basement of the Nixon White House, one of the few places in America where he could still pass himself off as the foremost representative of the poor.*
*Moynihan got his job in the White House through a rich college fuck named Christopher DeMuth, who had been his tutee at Harvard. DeMuth suggested to his boss, Leonard Garment, that Moynihan would make a good secretary of transportation. Brought in to meet Nixon, Moynihan expressed fears that articles he had written critical of the auto industry might queer him for the job. Later Moynihan himself suggested that Nixon could invent an Urban Affairs Council, with Pat as its cabinet-level head. Nixon bit.
Once in the White House, Moynihan set about to sell himself as a man who had clout with Edward Kennedy, the de facto leader of the opposition, and therefore with the entire left. The Nixon Republicans were the perfect marks for this scam, being the last people who would know the true history of Moynihan’s relationship with the Kennedy family. It was a fact that Moynihan had campaigned for Jack in 1960 and for Bobby in 1968. But Jack barely knew who he was and Bobby neither liked nor trusted him. (“Moynihan’s problem is simple,” Bobby said to Richard Goodwin in 1967. “He just doesn’t like blacks.”) As for his relationship with Ted Kennedy, it was virtually nonexistent. Yet he found ways to create the impression that he had arrived fresh from Hyannis — like announcing at meetings, “I am a Kennedy Democrat,” and handing out old White House match-books inscribed with the words “Honey Fitz.”
Richard Nixon, who was obsessed by the threat of Kennedy’s power and charisma, embraced Moynihan with the enthusiasm of an Allied general welcoming a defecting German rocketry expert. Here was a hostage from Camelot, a man the liberals would have to respect — yet Moynihan’s memoranda made it clear that he thought the left had got out of control and Nixon was the man to bring back law and order.
The Kennedy con worked beautifully right up until that moonless night in July 1969 when Teddy Kennedy drove off a bridge. With the Kennedy threat dismantled, Moynihan lost his power base. “Chappaquiddick completely changed Moynihan’s position in the White House,” says someone who observed him closely at the time. “Having started out as something of his own man, he became a fawning courtier, more royalist than the king. He worried continually about offending the likes of Harry Dent.” (Harry Dent, a former aide to Strom Thurmond, was in charge of tending the segregationists and other lowlifes.) “Moynihan once said, ‘Harry Dent’s feelings are one of the most important political facts in the United States.’ ”
Moynihan’s greatest fear as Nixon’s resident liberal was to find himself outflanked by somebody on his left. This was precisely the risk he ran in advising Nixon to appoint Dr. Jean Mayer, the Harvard nutritionist, to head a White House conference on hunger. Mayer was a true liberal who had no interest in serving the Nixon administration, but was determined to eradicate hunger in America. Mayer had relatively little trouble getting around Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Nixon (who was genuinely committed to a massive antihunger program). His big problem was Moynihan, who made speeches about how he and Mayer, the two liberals, had to stick together, and then tried to block Mayer at almost every turn. Moynihan had the sense not to mount a frontal attack on Mayer, who had fought in the French Resistance and later served as personal aide to General De Gaulle, and was obviously practiced in the arts of self-defense. But he did consistently persecute Mayer’s staff people. Of a black woman who worked for Mayer, Moynihan said, “She’s not a representative of the poor. She’s a Yale graduate married to a Jew lawyer.” That Moynihan’s own staff was packed with rich college fucks did not strike him as wrong; what mattered was that he be seen as the sole and unique spokesman for the poor.
The first major problem Mayer encountered was that Moynihan, on the basis of no information, resolutely insisted that there were no hungry people in the United States. Then Moynihan wanted Mayer to drop his plans for expanding the food stamp program and adopt Moynihan’s Family Assistance Plan (a graduated negative income tax scheme that would provide $1,600 annually to families with no income). Mayer replied that while he agreed in principle, he could count well enough to see that a poor family could easily starve on that amount. Moynihan then simply announced at a press conference that his own plan was going to replace food stamps; Mayer had to threaten to quit before Moynihan was made to retract his statement.
Finally there was the conference on hunger. Mayer wanted it to be a controversial meeting, with many activists and poor people present — a prospect which made Moynihan hysterical. “If I’d listened to him, I’d have invited nothing but Republican county chairmen,” Mayer later told a friend. In their excellent book, Nixon in the White House, Evans and Novak wrote, “What particularly irritated Mayer was that Moynihan was trying to exclude from the conference not only critics of Nixon but also critics of Moynihan.” He did not entirely succeed, for the representatives of the poor who were allowed into the conference spent a great deal of time attacking Richard Nixon. “Ungrateful wretches,” was Moynihan’s comment.
Despite constant opposition, Mayer managed to accomplish much of what he set out to do, simply by threatening a noisy resignation whenever he was thwarted; Richard Nixon ended up doing more than any other president in American history to feed the hungry. And when Mayer’s food stamp program became a success, Moynihan took the credit.
In the first few months of the administration, those happy days when he was walking around saying that he had “an unbeatable poker hand,” Moynihan enjoyed great success. Not only did he manage to save most of the Great Society programs from Nixon’s promised wrecking ball, but he even talked the president into backing his proposal to give cash to the poor in lieu of social services — the Family Assistance Plan. He did this by buttering up the Chief, telling him that great social-welfare reforms were brought about by Tories like Disraeli, who could call forth conservative support that liberals could never hope to muster.
The Family Assistance Plan sailed through the House of Representatives in mid-April 1970, much to everybody’s surprise. It died later that year in the conservative-minded Senate Finance Committee. Moynihan later gave his own version of the plan’s rise and fall in his book, The Politics of a Guaranteed Income; he blamed the bill’s defeat on the liberals, who he claimed were too small-minded to accept a revolutionary proposal from their favorite enemy, Richard Nixon. The truth is that Richard Nixon showed what he really thought of the FAP when he kicked Moynihan upstairs in November 1969 and gave control of domestic policy to John Ehrlichman, who had never “felt comfortable” with the plan and did not wish to see it survive. Moynihan’s book tells of the bill’s death in the 91st Congress but makes only the slightest mention of its resurrection in the 92nd, when liberal senator Abraham Ribicoff led a fight to get it passed.
With his nose for trends, Moynihan came into the Nixon administration with a confident hunch that the black urban rioters were finally running out of steam. The trick was to get some credit for this comforting turn of events, both for himself and for client Nixon. The FAP served this purpose nicely. So did his treatment of the cities, which he recently described to Eric Sevareid when the two “exchanged memoirs” on TV. As Moynihan told it, when he first got to the White House he was getting 16 hours of phone calls every day from panicky city officials who claimed that their cities were about to blow up unless they got a bridge, a paving contract, a day-care center or some other boon from the federal government. Moynihan, fully supported by Nixon, took what he called the biggest risk of his life. “I would get into a conversation with the mayor and I would say: … ‘You think violence, mass violence, is imminent?’ ‘Unavoidable,’ he would say … ‘unless you do that or this.’ And then I would say, ‘Well, that is very disappointing … we are going to have to reserve our resources for those places where there is still hope. Obviously, there’s no hope for you, and so go ahead, do the best you can when it breaks….’ “
Using federal funds as a blunt weapon, Moynihan, bludgeoned the mayors into saying precisely what he wanted to hear: that all was well in the cities. Only then did they get the funds they so badly needed. Moynihan apparently did not see this cheer-up-or-I’ll-kill-you routine as an abuse of the same federal powers he claimed he wanted to see given to local government.
When Moynihan finally decided to leave the White House in December 1970, he made a little speech to the cabinet and staff, who had been assembled in the East Room for the occasion. “Depressing things, even frightening things, are being said about the administration,” he told them. “They are not true. This has been a company of honorable and able men, led by a president of singular courage and compassion….” But he recently told Sevareid that he had come to feel “that a kind of sour and offensive atmosphere was settling in that place, and the time came when I just left.”
The most unforgivable single thing about Daniel Patrick Moynihan is that he never showed either the inclination or the balls to stand up to the most offensive men in the Nixon regime. He had plenty of tough words for a bunch of frightened mayors, but hardly a single rebuke for John Mitchell or Spiro Agnew, both of whom worked overtime to undo his programs. His one indirect and pathetic attempt to take them on was the “benign neglect” memo, in which he respectfully requested that the administration “avoid situations in which extremists of either race are given opportunities for martyrdom, heroics, histrionics or whatever.” He only managed to trip himself up with the memo, throwing in that fatal little phrase, which he showily attributed to a 19th-century governor general of Canada. He recently admitted to a Times reporter that he even had the phrase wrong. “What I think I did was to confuse it with the phrase used by Edmund Burke — ‘salutary neglect’ — about the American colonies,” he explained.
After leaving the White House, he continued a relationship with Nixon that can only be described as the sick charade of two men for whom the real world will never provide enough love and assurance. Every time Nixon made public mention of the Family Assistance Plan (which he was in the process of ignoring to death), he would call up Moynihan to ask if he had said the right thing. And Moynihan would assure him that he had. He must have realized that he and Nixon could still be useful to each other. In the fall of 1970, Nixon had secretly appointed him to replace career diplomat Charles Yost as ambassador to the UN. Somehow the word got out, as it so often does when Moynihan is involved, and The Boston Globe broke the news of the appointment in late November. The reaction was swift and devastating. The entire foreign service establishment, outraged that Nixon would pick someone totally inexperienced in international affairs, screamed for a reversal. The New York Times pronounced Moynihan “simply not qualified for the job.” Taken aback, Moynihan apologetically told Nixon that he guessed he would just go back to Harvard — but he did not forget that the foreign service officers had humiliated him and cost him a good job.
He did not lose the job entirely. Returning to Harvard for one term at the beginning of 1971, he took the fall term off to serve as one of the five American delegates to the General Assembly. As if in penance for its nasty editorial of the year before, the Times printed a flattering interview in which Moynihan was presented as the sage of Turtle Bay. “We’ve been going through an endless misery with the totalitarian states about which of us is nastiest and meanest,” he was quoted as saying. “Nothing is achieved by our exchanging epithets.” What would be more realistic, Moynihan told the reporter, would be “sitting down to reach compromises with totalitarian countries not about how we view the world but how we behave in it — compromise, agreement, contract.” Four years later, he would denounce such compromise as appeasement and would emerge as the greatest epithet slinger since Krishna Menon.
What happened in those four years to so transform Moynihan? He returned to Harvard, got tenure in the government department and then took off for India, where he served for two relatively quiet years as a model ambassador. Maybe he got a bellyful of Third World hypocrisy in New Delhi; maybe he missed the sound of the phone ringing off the hook with reporters calling up about a new controversy. In any event, he came home just as Phnom Penh and Saigon were going down the tubes, leaving Ford and Kissinger desperate for self-respect. They needed someone aggressive to pump up their foreign policy image, and Moynihan was the obvious choice.
The only question worth asking, these days, about Moynihan’s time at the UN is whether he intended to enter the Senate race when he took the job. He might have already decided to have another shot at elective office — but that would have been too risky, existential and generally self-knowledgeable to suit his style. More likely, he decided in his own mind not to run — thereby giving himself the license to make all kinds of demagogic speeches in good conscience. And if people ended up begging him to enter the race … well, he might just have to give in, as a patriotic duty, like Cincinnatus leaving the farm. The first thing he said to his assistant, Leonard Garment (the White House Watergate lawyer), was, “Let’s try, in a responsible way, to get fired.” Kissinger had hired him to strike back at insults and libels from anti-American countries, but Moynihan went hog wild. At thrice-weekly meetings, he was forever telling his 40-person staff that “those people across the street are our enemies, and don’t anyone forget it.” By his definition, any country that voted with the U.S. was a liberal democracy (including such police states as Chile, South Korea and Iran); anyone who opposed the U.S. was communist. He railed against the Western European countries for their spineless conduct, their appeasement of the communists; he had equal impatience with the “weakling” foreign service officers in the State Department. One morning when the UN was preparing to welcome the newly independent Comoro Islands (pop. 212,000), Moynihan skulked off saying, “Well, we’re about to go across the street and admit another communist country to the UN.” It was around this time that several of the foreign service staffers decided he was crazy.
Moynihan’s first big public act was to call Idi Amin a “racist murderer,” which was precisely as courageous as denouncing Adolf Hitler. He went on to add his famous inaccurate remark about it being “no accident” that Amin was president of the Organization of African Unity, thus gratuitously insulting the whole African bloc. Then, after the General Assembly passed the ridiculous Zionism-is-a-form-of-racism resolution, Moynihan retaliated by announcing on the Today show that the United States would introduce that very day a major resolution demanding amnesty for political prisoners. This offended America’s most loyal allies, since none had been informed that the resolution was in the works. That same afternoon, Moynihan introduced the amnesty resolution, remarking along the way that South Africa had the only free press on the African continent, which once again insulted the entire African bloc. A week later the resolution, facing certain defeat, was withdrawn.
The British ambassador to the UN, Ivor Richard, was appalled by Moynihan’s handling of the resolution. The Western Europeans, in their spineless fashion, had a way of getting things accomplished in the UN, which was to prepare carefully, lobby assiduously, lay low and get some friendly Third World country to front for them. But Moynihan seemed to think that the righteousness of America’s thinking ought to carry the day, and to hell with teamwork. Knowing that Moynihan was a hopeless anglophile, Richard decided that a slap on the wrist from the English ambassador would sober him up faster than anything. So he delivered a pithy speech which said exactly the same thing Moynihan had said to the Times five years earlier — that the UN was not a place for debating ideology or slinging epithets, but an instrument for international cooperation. He also pleaded for patience toward the “desperately and painfully poor” countries of the Third World.
Moynihan freaked out on cue. Couldn’t believe that an Englishman could say things like that. Went into a funk. Concluded that the whole conspiracy against him must have been cooked up at the economic summit in France by Henry Kissinger, who had whispered malign instructions to the British foreign secretary, who passed them on to Ivor Richard. Called a press conference with the intention of resigning, and was only talked out of it by a last-minute phone call from Gerald Ford.
“Well, something was set up,” Moynihan later explained to me. “You know these minds well, you sort of know the way they work. They put this guy on you and that guy on you and then you begin to see. And then my move had to be to make the president say, ‘Well, you must stay.’ That’s kind of a monthly experience in the life of a senior man in Washington. It’s nothing unusual.”
It was so sensationally unusual that it kept Moynihan in the headlines for days. He proudly told his staff, over and over again, that he had the full support of the president and the secretary of state, and he kept booming along on a manic spiral, gathering confidence and kudos, until he finally overreached himself by sending a memo to the State Department, attacking his old foes, the foreign service officers, for criticizing his grandstand style of diplomacy. Moynihan put such a low classification on the memo that it was obviously calculated to leak, which it did. This was too much for Kissinger, who sent a message via James Reston’s column in The New York Times that Moynihan was persona non grata. Feeling that Kissinger had undercut his usefulness as a spokesman for the U.S., Moynihan resigned, ostensibly to return to Harvard.
Even before Moynihan left the UN, the Delegates Lounge was full of what the Times called “ugly rumors … that he had come on strong for Zionism as a means of getting the Jewish vote if he should campaign for Senate in New York.” Moynihan’s friends were quick to suggest that these rumors were coming from Arabs and communists seeking to discredit the American ambassador, and Moynihan issued an indignant but carefully worded disclaimer, saying that he would be guilty of dishonorable conduct if he left his post to run for Senate. Of course, if he went back to Harvard and then decided to run, he wouldn’t be violating his disclaimer.
The rumors that I heard at the time came from people who had never been within a thousand miles of either Moscow or Mecca, good Democratic pros who said that Moynihan was lining up labor support from George Meany, was agreeing to run if his friends could raise a million-dollar campaign chest, and was being backed by Coalition for a Democratic Majority (a group of neoconservative Democrats who favored Scoop Jackson for president). Sure enough, a week before he resigned, Moynihan held a mysterious powwow with Jackson at the UN mission and attended a cocktail fundraiser for CDM’s candidates. Not long after he quit, he popped up with an endorsement for Jackson, and proceeded to campaign for the senator in the Florida, Wisconsin and New York primaries. This was clearly a trial run for his own race, and the results were encouraging beyond all hope, for Moynihan turned out to be the darling of the old Humphrey coalition of party hacks, big labor, Jews and — well, not the blacks, who refused to forgive him for the “benign neglect” memo. The other contenders in the field — Ramsey “the Red” Clark, Bella “the Bombthrower” Abzug and Paul “Pinko” O’Dwyer — were all too reminiscent of the New Left, the Sixties, Chicago and the antiwar movement to suit the Humphrey types. Moynihan was the only Democrat in sight who had reassuringly kind words for the multinational corporations, the CIA, big defense budgets, subsidies for the aircraft industry, Zionism and the policy of full employment. (Except for the last item, Moynihan might as well be a Republican. Indeed, his views are sufficiently compatible with those of William F. Buckley Jr. that the two men formed a kind of mutual admiration society during Moynihan’s tenure at the UN. They became such good friends that one contributor to the National Review found it impossible to believe that Moynihan would ever run against Buckley’s brother James. “If he does that,” said the writer last February, “he is a bounder.”)
Throughout the spring, as Moynihan continued to stew over his decision, he was besieged by supporters urging him to run. The New York party regulars, like his old friend Joe Crangle, the boss of Erie County, told him he was the only Democrat who could carry the upstate counties. The labor heavies, like his old buddies George Meany, Lane Kirkland and Al Barkan of the AFL-CIO, wanted desperately to beat Senator James Buckley, who had one of the worst labor voting records ever recorded in the United States Senate; and they told Moynihan he was the only Democrat who could win. (Eventually, Barkan came through with a pledge of $100,000 of the union’s political funds to start off Moynihan’s campaign kitty.) His closest friend, Norman Podhoretz (editor of Commentary, and Moynihan’s unofficial adviser on the Middle East), told him he must run because he had a unique opportunity to “define a winning centrist position, first by creaming the radicals within the party and then the right wing outside the party.”
Yet there were other and perhaps better friends who advised Moynihan to look hard at the risks involved. They pointed out that it takes anywhere from a quarter-of-a-million to two million dollars to run a Senate campaign and that the candidate often spent more money than he had in hand. If Moynihan lost, the money would stop coming in, and he would spend years paying off the debt. As a defeated candidate, his popularity would decline and he would no longer command the same handsome fees he now received for speeches. He might forfeit his job at Harvard and the elegant house provided by the university; he would lose self-respect and the respect of his friends. All in all, it was wiser not to run.
What Moynihan’s final calculations may have been, God only knows. Perhaps he reckoned that his people, the Humphrey-Jackson types, were reclaiming the party after having been kicked out by the McGovern kids. Yes, he might have thought, this is the year that the three liberals in the New York Senate primary will split the vote among themselves and the Democrats will swing back to the center. Besides, Jimmy Carter was an unknown, he had declined to announce his foreign policy — but he might be persuaded to send another Harvard professor to Foggy Bottom. With any luck, Moynihan could lose and still get secretary of state as a consolation prize. On June 10th, he finally gave in and decided to offer himself to the electorate.
But there was a day long before that when I became pretty certain that Moynihan was going to run — the first Saturday in April, just before the New York presidential primary, when he went out to stump for Scoop Jackson. It was a clear sunny day, with a chilly wind blowing, and Moynihan was doing a handshaking tour of Main Street in Flushing, with a chubby Jackson volunteer plowing along in front of him announcing, “Meet Ambassador Moynihan.” The ambassador was wearing his trademark porkpie hat, a polkadot bow tie and his Saville Row blue pin-stripe suit, which is strikingly similar to the one worn by Winston Churchill in the famous Karsh of Ottawa portrait. He had thinned down by at least ten pounds since the month before, though he refused to admit losing any weight at all.
These street tours are usually humiliating affairs, with the candidate straining to radiate good will, and the populace rushing by, spurning his outstretched hand. But the good people of Queens — Jewish mothers, beardos in dungarees, Hindus with a dot between the eyes, cops — were actually lining up to meet Moynihan, to tell him things. They barely listened to him urging them to vote for Jackson. “We want a chance to vote for you.” “Why don’t you run instead of Jackson?” And two Irish girls stood off to the side, giggling: “Maggie, for God’s sake, just say, ‘I want you.’ — No, I can’t, I just can’t.”
That evening, Moynihan gave a speech to a group of Jewish senior citizens in the fluorescent-lit, linoleum-floored basement of an old apartment house in Far Rockaway. He quoted Harvard professor Adam Ulam writing in The New Republic. “Listen to this because it is something in your adult life you have never heard. Ulam says that the ‘Soviet Union under Brezhnev has achieved — and it would be most dangerous and ungenerous for us to deny it — the leading, if not yet the dominant position in world politics.’ Now that’s what’s going on out there. And I think most of us here are old enough to know, to remember the time when Hitler’s Germany was doing that and nobody wanted to hear it.”
Give Moynihan his due, he knew which icons to touch. In the course of a 15-minute speech, he mentioned John F. Kennedy half a dozen times, made reference to his own service in the Navy and did homage to Israel (“the last democratic state on the continent of Asia”). Nor was he afraid to use connections. “I spoke to Moshe Dayan yesterday,” he said. “I had a bite to eat with him in Bermuda and I will say to you entirely off the record, he’s a little more optimistic than makes me feel good.” This was not only an example of name-dropping so thunderous that it belonged in the Guinness Book of Records, it was also the only time I had ever heard anyone try to put part of a campaign speech off the record.
When the speech was done, the senior citizens thronged around Moynihan, asking for his autograph, his photograph, his promise to run for senator, or even vice-president. Moynihan slowly made his way to the pavement outside and shouted “Saddle up!” to collect the Los Angeles Times reporter, the Newsday reporter and the Jackson volunteers who were traveling in his car. Piling into the front seat, I looked around at him and did a double take. Something about him had changed, something indefinable, but he suddenly looked trim, handsome, ten years younger, radiant — the day had somehow transformed him from Charles Laughton into Peter O’Toole (O’Toole playing Mr. Chips, but still a movie star). Then it hit me — I was witnessing one of the rarest and most poignant mysteries in all of political life, the sight of an incurable politics junkie with a fresh fix in his system. There were certain natural-born politicians whose health, vigor, whose very skin tone was directly dependent on a steady supply of approval and applause. Hubert Humphrey was such a man; people undoubtedly voted for him because he wanted their support so badly — a simple vote would make the poor man so happy!
And now Moynihan … he was babbling away, almost giddy, running down the ethnic composition of the Queens neighborhood that we were speeding through. The college girl at the wheel kept giggling and blurting, “Gee, Ambassador Moynihan, I wish I had a professor like you,” and Moynihan was laughing his jolly Pickwickian laugh.
At times like this, it was possible to wonder if Pat Moynihan would make such a bad senator after all. There he’d be, pacing the gray-carpeted Senate floor, towering over the other members, sardonically addressing the gentleman from this state or that state, dropping bon mots into the Congressional Record, dropping bombs on the opposition. So what if he always made a “splash, not a contribution,” as one of his friends said? He would make it hot for them, like the Magic Christian. One could almost hear his maiden speech, a heartfelt appeal for human liberty, a clarion call for equal opportunities for the black man, a speech to rank with Bryant’s “Cross of Gold” for passion and eloquence … or then again it might sound like the arrogant swill that was coming out of his mouth as the car shot down the expressway.
“The crowd was too nice to have an argument,” he was saying. “That lady who said Americans are starving… . Any Americans who are starving, it’s because they are idiots. If they are idiots, they deserve to be. It’s very easy to underestimate the number of severely mentally retarded or very, very slow people…. And no young citizen has any right to say that Americans are starving. That crap. We are putting out food stamps, $8 billion worth, and I struggled at one point to get food stamps up to $700 million.”
Pretty soon he free-associated his way to the subject of the free City University, which admits no one who has not passed a ninth grade reading test. “Now what in hell is the matter with us?” he said. “We’re turning out as high school graduates people who can’t pass ninth grade arithmetic and reading tests. And we know that you have to write to go to the university. There are some people who have taken a lot of public benefits in the process of not teaching people to read, including some of the kids, the little bastards who didn’t learn to read. What the hell’s the matter with them? If you can’t pass the ninth grade reading test, you have no right to be in the university. They ought to say, ‘Well, I screwed up,’ and go away and learn, learn to read to the 11th grade level. It’s not very hard. They’re making it too soft to get into college. The Catholic schools in this city spend one quarter per pupil of the public school system, and they do a good enough job.”
We came into Manhattan over the 59th Street Bridge — Gatsby’s bridge — and then made a left onto Second Avenue. The night had turned balmy and the streets were full of people going somewhere to have a good time. Moynihan was now describing the difficulties of getting a drink in Moscow. We hit solid traffic on 42nd Street, going west, by the New York Public Library, and on our left flank was a beat-up old Chevy convertible, Jersey plates, containing two young boppers in T-shirts who were shouting vulgarities at the cars blocking their progress. “Let’s see them come out of their car and they’ll get their asses whipped,” said Moynihan to raucous laughter from his fellow passengers. Moynihan has a thing about teenage males. He likes to quote a demographers’ adage to the effect that every society is periodically invaded by barbarians, its own male children aged 14 to 24 … “and these guys are the people who cause all the trouble … raise the hell.”
“Why don’t you guys calm down, all right?” Moynihan shouted to the T-shirts.
“What’s your problem, buddy?” said one of the T-shirts.
“What’s your problem gonna be?” said Moynihan.
“I think that guy knows who you are,” giggled the driver.
“They’re drinking beer, they were drinking beer down on Second Avenue,” said Moynihan.
“Why don’t you get out?” shouted the T-shirt.
“He’s drunk,” said Moynihan. “If you see a cop, let’s stop and tell him, all right? I mean, it’s an irresponsible thing not to tell a police officer.”
“There’s a police officer,” giggled the driver, who had spotted a squad car. “Should I beep the horn? Oh, he’s on to somebody else! Well, we tried.”
The light changed, the traffic broke up and we pulled away from the Chevy. “Listen,” Moynihan said proudly, leaning toward the window. “We’re Jackson delegates! We’re making a citizen’s arrest.” He turned to one of the reporters, laughing. “My God, get that into Newsday.”
We ended up on 43rd Street between Fifth and Sixth, at the Harvard Club, where Moynihan was spending the night. It was a ten-minute walk away from the Hell’s Kitchen bar he once tended. Inside, you could see the red leather armchairs, the plush red carpeting, the oil portraits of famous men. The night clerk shuffled out and unlocked the thick glass doors to let Moynihan in. He was safe from the onslaught of the barbarians for one more night, and ready to defend the culture once more in the morning.